By GENEVIEVE BOOKWALTER
As Gov. Gray Davis cuts away at the state's $35 billion deficit, foothill ranchers and growers may feel the swipe of his blade.
Threatened is the Williamson Act, which took effect in 1965 to help preserve agriculture and open space in California. Under the legislation, ranchers and farmers and other property owners who agree not to develop or sell off chunks of their land for at least 10 years qualify for lower property taxes.
The cheaper rates are based on the property's income potential as crop or ranch land instead of its income potential if developed. The state then compensates counties for the difference between the two property tax amounts.
In Davis' 2002-03 fiscal year budget proposal, the $38 million program would be eliminated. Tuolumne County would lose $116,758 and Calaveras County would lose $195,227.
Right now, those dollars pay to keep 117,813 acres in Tuolumne County and 273,013 acres in Calaveras County as agricultural land or open space.
If the budget proposal passes, ranchers, grape growers and others who own that ground would see property taxes spike should county officials in turn charge more to cover the lost state income.
"It would devastate not only me, think of what it would do to the price of food throughout the valley," said Sonora area cattle rancher Denny Daoust.
"That's a very typical Democratic move, to hurt the least voting population who produces the most," he said.
But Davis officials said that with a $35 billion budget shortfall, no state program is spared.
"Gov. Davis has cuts in every area in state spending, even K through 12 education, which is his number-one priority," said Hilary McLean, chief deputy press secretary for Davis. " It speaks to the fact that we're not playing favorites anywhere with this budget."
McLean said the proposal will now go to the state Legislature, which has until June 15 to review and approve, change or deny it. If approved, the cuts take effect July 1.
Some property owners say it is too early to guess at the effect increased property taxes could have.