Costs of Wildfires Go to Lawmakers

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – The speaker of the Montana House says he has no quarrel with Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s request for $55 million to pay for fighting wildfires as lawmakers convene in a special legislative session this week.

But Speaker Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, said he is against Schweitzer’s other goal for the special session: increasing the governor’s emergency account from $16 million to $25 million and allowing the governor to call a single fire emergency that could last up to four months.

“I think this is a power grab on the part of the governor and I hope (Democrats) will resist it,” Sales told the Lee Newspapers in a story published Sunday. “I don’t want to give this or any other governor more authority.”

Sales said a special session is not the time or place to discuss a larger policy change like expanding the governor’s disaster and emergency authority. Lawmakers ought to get in, transfer the money for firefighting, and get out, he said.

As of last week, the state’s share of the 2007 firefighting bill was $35 million, which is $19 million more than the state has allocated to pay for fires and other disasters for the next two years.

Schweitzer said he wants lawmakers to consider spending $55 million to pay for wildfires both this year and next.

The governor’s disaster account is now set at $16 million, which Schweitzer and his budget director, Dave Ewer, say is too low to deal with all the potential disasters the state could face over two years.

When a disaster strikes, the governor can declare a state of emergency, which enables him to spend money from the disaster account. An official state of emergency expires after 20 days, and the governor must extend it to continue spending money from the account. The governor can extend a state of emergency only once.

However, he may also declare an official state of disaster. Disaster declarations expire after 30 days. The governor may extend disaster declarations for a second 30 days.

Ewer said the state’s current fire season is longer than all the allotted time the governor may declare for both disasters and emergencies. Schweitzer wants to be able to suspend the time frame for both declarations between July and October when dealing only with forest fires.

Rep. Tim Callahan, a Great Falls Democrat, is carrying a bill that includes suspending the disaster and emergency time frame for fires and upping the governor’s emergency account to $25 million. It also includes giving the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which oversees state firefighting, an additional $39 million immediately and another $10 million next year for fires. The bill also includes $3 million to the state’s Disaster and Emergency Services Division.

“There’s got to be room for compromise,” Callahan said. “I don’t think I would propose sweeping changes to statutes in a special session. I don’t view any of these things as sweeping.”

Republicans have two bills of their own, both carried by Rep. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek. Ripley’s bill is identical to the governor’s on the issue of how much money to set aside for firefighting. However, Ripley does not propose expanding disaster and emergency declarations or increasing the governor’s emergency account to $25 million.

Instead, Ripley has a bill to create a special $25 million firefighting account within the natural resources department.