MTPR

State Officials Say Budget Issues Won't Handcuff Firefighting Efforts

Aug 3, 2017

The money set aside to fight wildfires in Montana is rapidly dwindling as portions of the state are in extreme drought conditions. But John Tubbs, Director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, says there’s more money available to keep up the firefighting efforts, in other pockets of state government.

“We don’t run out,” Tubbs says.

Fire season is hitting full swing at the same time as new mandatory budget cuts from a law passed earlier this year are kicking in. That law aims to protect the state against future budget shortfalls. And that means the $63 million dollars set aside in the state budget for firefighting will be cut roughly in half.

The state is spending $1 million to $1.5 million a day, Tubbs says. But in an interview with NPR’s Here and Now Thursday, he said budget issues won’t handcuff firefighting work moving forward.

“When we are fighting fires, what we really care about is keeping Montanans safe. Our ability to fight fire will not be constrained by cash,”  Tubbs says.

Bottom line, if the fire fund account runs dry, state officials will find money elsewhere in this year’s budget, or next year’s

Dan Villa, the state budget director, says the DNRC can pull about $23 million that's set aside for forestry programs to cover firefighting costs. He also says there’s an additional $20 million available in energy disaster funds, including some left over from last year.

“Certainly there is a scenario where all of the revenues, or all of the appropriations, are diminished," Villa says. "But, that has happened once, and the last time was 2007."

Credit William Marcus

Villa says the federal government will reimburse the state for some of what it spends fighting fires, based in part on whether those fires are on federal land. But at this point, it’s unclear how much that reimbursement will be, or when it will happen.

"At that point you can look at a supplemental appropriation, where we move money from fiscal ‘19 back to fiscal ’18.  So, there a lot of tools that we will exhaust fully before we begin talking about any sort of legislative solution."

He says calling in the legislature for a special session to appropriate more money is the last option on the table, and more likely, the administration will shift money from elsewhere in the general fund to cover firefighting expenses. 

“A taxpayer dollar is a taxpayer dollar. Where it is allocated may change. But at the end of the day, the decisions are the same, there is finite amount of money to go around. Is it allocated for specifically for fire suppression? Does it go to pay for public schools or public health? Those are questions the next Legislature will have to wrestle with,” Villa says.

During the last legislative session the Republican majority fought with the Democratic administration over the state budget. Republicans pushed to  slow down state spending while state revenues were down. Democrats, and Governor Bullock, lobbied for new taxes to fund state spending at higher levels. The Republican majority rejected nearly all of tax the increases asked for by Democrats.

What passed was a plan to reduce government spending if revenues fell short. That plan gambled against a fire season as bad as this year’s. Governor Steve Bullock signed the plan into law, and when revenues came in low, it cut the state firefighting fund in half - to about 30 million dollars.

Representative Nancy Ballance chaired the House Appropriations Committee in the 2017 session. The Hamilton Republican says many lawmakers thought reducing the fire fund in case of decreased revenues would still leave enough money for fire season.

Rep. Nancy Ballance.
Credit Mike Albans

“Generally, fires run in the $20 million, is a typical season; $20 to $25 million. I think one of the worst seasons we've had was $57 million. So, we felt that we could use some of the money that was in the fire fund to backfill in case the revenue was extremely short."

Ballance agrees with Budget Director Dan Villa that calling on lawmakers to appropriate more money is the option of last resort. Until then, she says it’s up to the governor’s office to make reductions to state spending and find the money to fight fire this summer, which she doesn’t expect to be an issue.

Looking forward, Representative Balance says she’s more concerned about funding the next fire season than this one.

“The issue will be yes, the fire fund will be exhausted. But, more importantly, if we don’t get revenues back up where they belong, we won’t have money going into the fire fund," she says.

The Associated Press reported on Monday that state fire suppression fund was as low as $12 million dollars. At the current rate of spending, it could be completely depleted in a week.