Montana Wildfire Funding ‘Convoluted’

By Beacon Staff

HELENA, (AP) – Legislative analysts agreed Tuesday that more money is needed to fight fires in Montana but called the state’s current system for funding wildfire suppression “convoluted” and raised concerns about some of Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s special session requests.

The governor called a special session, scheduled to begin Wednesday, in which lawmakers will consider three proposals involving wildfire funding.

In preparation for the special session, the House Appropriations and Senate Finance and Claims committees on Tuesday held a joint hearing during which they were presented an analysis on wildfire suppression funding by the Legislative Fiscal Division.

The report said the state’s average wildfire suppression costs have grown “dramatically” in the past decade — to more than $19 million a year — and are increasing with more severe fire seasons.

The Legislature has never provided upfront funding through an appropriation for fire suppression costs, the report said. Instead, the state funds wildfires through a “convoluted” process that includes drawing from the governor’s emergency fund, shifting appropriations between programs and fiscal years, using general fund loans, and getting “bailouts” from the federal government.

“With increasing cost and severity, the nonbudgeted policy for wildfire costs cannot be sustained in the future,” the report said.

Schweitzer is requesting $55 million to pay for wildfires both this year and next. He also is asking lawmakers to increase his emergency account from $16 million to $25 million and allow him to call a single fire emergency that could last up to four months.

House Speaker Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, has said he agrees with the governor’s request for $55 million. But he said he is against Schweitzer’s other two goals, saying he doesn’t want to give Schweitzer or any other governor more authority.

Sales also has argued that a special session is not the time or place to discuss a larger policy change like expanding the governor’s disaster and emergency authority.

Legislative analysts said increasing the emergency fund is a “long-term decision that has a greater policy effect than just the 2009 biennium, and is not critical to funding the current shortage.” They noted that Schweitzer proposed increasing the emergency fund to $25 million during the regular legislative session, but that bill was tabled in committee.

“Examining the same issue in a time-limited session may not be in the best interest of the state,” the report said.

Rep. Tim Callahan, a Great Falls Democrat, is carrying the 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 Department of Military Affairs.

Republicans also have two bills, both carried by Rep. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek. Ripley’s bill is the same as 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.

Legislative analysts said updated cost estimates likely will be provided during the special session, but noted that the governor’s proposed appropriation doesn’t include adjustments for new fire starts that go beyond initial attacks; doesn’t consider growth in several existing fires; and doesn’t consider possible changes in federal reimbursement habits. Also, the $3 million allotted to cover National Guard costs may not be sufficient, their report said.

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