Schweitzer Calls Special Session

By Beacon Staff

HELENA, Mont. (AP) _ Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Monday called a special legislative session for Sept. 5 so lawmakers can allocate more money to pay for fighting wildfires this summer.

At a Capitol news conference, Schweitzer said he will request an additional $55 million that could be put toward this year’s firefighting efforts and next year’s, along with other emergencies that might come up, such as snowstorms or earthquakes.

“Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know we’ve had a big fire season this year, and fires cost money,” Schweitzer said. “The Legislature left a strong fund balance in the bank. This is a matter of moving money from savings to checking so we can pay our bills.”

During the regular legislative session earlier this year, lawmakers put $16 million in the emergency fund, which includes money for fighting fires.

Schweitzer said the estimated cost for fighting fires so far this year is $32 million. But he said the 2007 fire season isn’t over, despite cooler weather.

“In eastern Montana, the fire season can go well into October,” he said.

The $55 million he’s requesting includes $34 million specifically for this year’s firefighting costs; $10 million specifically for next year’s firefighting costs; and $9 million that would be available through an emergency fund if the dollars were needed, said Mary Sexton, director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

The governor also seeks to increase the emergency-disaster appropriation permitted by law from $16 million to $25 million per biennium, and eliminate time restrictions on declarations of disasters and emergencies during fire season.

Many legislators already have been contacted about the special session; they likely will arrive in Helena on Sept. 4 for committee meetings, Schweitzer said.

The special session “shouldn’t take longer than a day,” he said. “I don’t think the Legislature will come to town and be partisan over our fire bills.”

In 2006, almost 1 million acres burned in Montana, costing the state about $37 million after reimbursements.