BOZEMAN –After decades of seeing the state pay its firefighting bills after the smoke cleared, state Sen. Pat Connell, a Republican from Hamilton, is pretty happy.
In the 2015 fire season, the state spent $10.5 million. But the Legislature’s fiscal division reported this week that the state’s wildfire suppression fund is at $86.5 million, with just a few bills left to pay.
This year’s balance started at $38.7 million, rolled over from last year, but was boosted by the $13.4 million leftover in the governor’s emergency fund. Plus, $21.5 million of leftover appropriations and a one-time infusion of $15 million of excess corporate license taxes.
Connell, who struggled to get those funds together, is happy because there’s no need for a supplemental appropriation in 2017, or a special legislative session, nor did the Department of Natural Resources, which handles state firefighting on 5.2 million acres, have to shut down the water division to pay for firefighting.
“The first thing I had to do, on the seventh of January, 2013, immediately upon appointment, my first order of business was a $50 million supplemental appropriation for fires in 2012,” DNRC director John Tubbs said Friday.
“Unlike the federal government, we’re not having to shut down the agency to pay for fires,” said Bob Harrington, the state forester. “That’s what you’re seeing in the Forest Service.”
It took decades for Montana to adopt a proactive funding process for wildfire suppression.
With the help of fellow Republican Sen. Duane Ankney of Colstrip, Connell passed legislation in 2013 creating a steady stream of cash into the wildfire purse.
But Connell, an industrial forester who studied fire management, wasn’t around when the Legislature created it during a special session in 2007 and put in $40 million. That year, wildfires choked the air. Near Missoula, the Jocko Lakes fire caused a large evacuation of homes.
But by 2011, Connell’s first year in the House, the fund was already dwindling. And then Gov. Brian Schweitzer proposed eliminating it, arguing his emergency account could pay for a big fire, so why should the Legislature put more into it?
Because wildfires are getting bigger, Connell said, and more expensive.
In 2012, the massive Ashland fire burnt homes to the ground in eastern Montana. The next year, the state spent $11 million in the first week of the Lolo Creek fire that threatened the Bonneville Power Administration’s transmission line.
“I’ve watched the developing risks for larger and larger wildfires for several decades,” he told the Chronicle. “Back in the ’60s a big fire was like the Saddle Mountain fire, they were under 30,000 acres. In the 2000s, fires in the Bitterroot were almost 350,000 acres.”
In 2013, after Schweitzer had left office, the forester tried again.
“We had enough fires in 2012 that we spent a ton of money in excess of the budget,” Connell said.
And newly elected Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget director, Dan Villa, had an idea.
Villa told the House Appropriations Committee, which Ankney chaired, that they could feed the fund every year with a fraction of the money appropriated to state agencies that they don’t spend — it’s called general fund reversion and accounts for the $21.5 million listed above.
When lawmakers tried to put a sunset on the funding, Villa convinced them that making it permanent would be fiscally responsible because it would help the state borrow money cheaper.
Citing Montana’s Aa1 rating Thursday, a spokesman for Moody’s Investors Service told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that it worked.
“We view it as a positive since it protects the state’s general fund from excess costs if there is a bad wildfire season,” said David Jacobson.
Why did it take so long for state lawmakers to create the permanent account that pays for wildfires? Yes, they’re unpredictable but at the same time they’re not — residents of the West know wildfires are coming, just not exactly when.
Connell said he had a hard time convincing his colleagues in the Legislature that it wouldn’t be used as a “slush fund” for the Democratic governor, particularly the $5 million for fuel reduction projects, which has been used to subsidize the commercial harvest of burnt pine trees from the Ashland fire, modernize rural fire trucks and dozens of other projects.
The Republican from Hamilton wasn’t the first lawmaker to try.
Prior to the special session in 2007, Sen. Christine Kaufmann, a Democrat from Helena, had proposed a property tax in the “wildland-urban interface area,” which would be put into a wildfire trust fund. But the proposed tax increase, debated in 2001 and 2003, prompted opposition from the timber industry.
So what’s next?
“If we demonstrate that we’re managing those funds wisely,” Tubbs said, “I’m confidant we’re going to have that political support to protect the fund. I can’t predict future Legislatures. But we are a model for the nation.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.