Lawmakers Authorize Money for Fire Season

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – The Legislature agreed Wednesday to set up a special $40 million account to pay for future wildfire costs, in addition to paying the firefighting bills accrued this summer.

The special legislative session Gov. Brian Schweitzer called for the purpose took just one day, as Republicans and Democrats both largely agreed on the need to spend money on fires.

The new wildfire account departs from the method usually used by the Legislature to pay for wildfires, which required them to pay for the firefighting costs after the fact. But both sides agreed increasingly longer and more expensive fire seasons required upfront payment for coming years.

Lawmakers adopted two bills, totaling about $80 million, that set up the wildlife account in the Department of Natural Resources, and spend about $43 million reimbursing the governor’s emergency account, the DNRC and the National Guard for costs accrued this summer.

“I think we have successfully accomplished the mission at hand,” House Speaker Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, said after the House overwhelmingly passed both bills Wednesday afternoon.

Lawmakers did wrangle over a failed proposal to let the governor call longer states of emergencies. Democrats said the plan would remove “bureaucratic red tape.”

Democrats unsuccessfully argued that the current limit of 20 days on a governor’s emergency declaration is not long enough. They wanted to exempt fires from that time limit, and another limit on disaster declarations.

“Fires don’t obey laws,” said Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula. “Fires don’t know they have to go out after 20 days.”

Republicans, however, said the change could be handled during the 2009 regular session where they could give it a longer look.

The bill cleared the Senate controlled by Democrats and died in the GOP-controlled House.

“The history books are full of examples of why you don’t expand emergency powers to the executive on a whim,” said Sen. Corey Stapleton, R-Billings.

Republicans also fought back an effort to expand the governor’s emergency spending account from $14 million to $25 million. Instead, they simply replenished the money already spent from the account this summer for fires.

Republicans said it was not necessary to expand the account since they increased firefighting money in the specific wildfire account in the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The Legislature will be required to look at the issue again in 2009.

House and Senate leaders talked throughout the day to reach agreement on the final package, frustrating some lawmakers who unsuccessfully tried to massage the way the money was being spent.

“I don’t understand any of the arguments against (my amendments) except that there is a deal already with the House,” Sen. John Cobb, R-Augusta, told senators in a committee.

A report from legislative staffers has found that the state’s average wildfire suppression costs have grown “dramatically” in the past decade — to more than $19 million a year.

The legislation adopted Wednesday also establishes a study to look at those costs and the reasons behind them.

In a news release issued Wednesday evening, Schweitzer applauded lawmakers for their hard work and quick action during the special session.

“The Legislature came to town and did the people’s business,” he said. “They transferred money from the savings account to the checking account so we can pay the bills for fighting wildfires this year and have funds in the bank for fires next season.”

So far this year, wildfires have blackened nearly 600,000 acres across the state, the release said. Drought conditions and weather forecasts lend themselves to a fire season lasting well into September.

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