Montana Lawmakers Ready For Special Session on Fire Spending

By Beacon Staff

Montana will owe more than $39 million after fall rains and snow have cooled this fire season. And already, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is out of money.

Earlier this week, Gov. Brian Schweitzer called state legislators to come back to Helena Sept. 5 for the second special session of the year, this time to put money towards fighting fire and beef up the governor’s emergency relief fund.

Some have questioned the timing of the special session, since fires are still burning around the state, but Bob Harrington, DNRC State Forester, says it’s past time.

“We’re out of money and we’re going to have to shut down the DNRC to keep going,” Harrington said. “We’re out of money to pay the bills.”

So far this year, more than 500,000 acres have burned in Montana.

Though the 2007 regular legislative session and the subsequent special session were contentious, this special session should be simple, Schweitzer said.

“It’s just a process of moving it from the savings to the checking account,” Schweitzer said.

He’s figuring lawmakers can get it done in one day.

But to get it done in one day, everything will have to go just right, said. Senator Jim Shockley, R-Victor.

“A computer glitch and we’re going to be there two days,” Shockley said.

State fire fighting has been funded the same way for years. The DNRC gets money from the legislature for regular crews, equipment, and training, but it doesn’t get money for actually fighting fire. Up until 2000, this process worked fine, he said.

However, 2000 was a particularly expensive year as was 2003 and 2006, and the funding mechanism didn’t work. The governor’s emergency fund was $15 million and all of it got swallowed up in fire costs, and still the state was short. So the DNRC would have to ask for money in the legislative session to cover bills.

In the 2007 session, the DNRC proposed legislation that would change the way their fire costs were funded, but it didn’t pass. Shockley said that was a mistake.

“Next regular session we’re going to have to have an appropriations that’s adequate for funding fires,” he said.

For now, the special session will just appropriate money for this year’s costs, Shockley said.

Because, he says, lawmakers could see a special session looming, he doesn’t understand why the rush to hold it before fire season is over.

“We should wait until the fire season’s done so we know what the bill is,” Shockley said. “It would make more sense to do it when we knew what we were doing.”

Shockley was also surprised Schweitzer gave legislators only 10 days notice. For citizen legislators who have jobs and responsibilities, it’s tough to just drop everything and go to Helena, particularly without much notice.

“Ten days is just not enough time and if there was a reason for only 10 days then that would be fine,” he said.

In the special session, Schweitzer is asking for $55 million to cover this year’s costs and to put more money back into his emergency relief fund.

Like Harrington, Schweitzer feels it’s important to have the special session now. He knows the state doesn’t have enough money allocated to cover fire suppression costs and with $184 million left in the state’s coffers, he doesn’t want to be in a position to owe money for fire fighting.

“Montana has been doing business like a business – we pay our bills,” Schweitzer said.

If he waited to call a session, the agencies and businesses who have helped Montana fight fires this summer would be waiting for their checks, that’s not how he wants to run things, he said.

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