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State Firefighting Funds Possibly At Risk From Revenue Triggers

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Wildfire

Wildfires are emerging all over western Montana, and the concern exists with revenue triggers looming, that the state will not have enough money in the budget to effectively fight all the fires.

State Representative Nancy Ballance (R HD 87), chair of the Interim Finance Committee, said she believes state revenues will fall short enough to trigger significant budget cuts.

“There’s no question we’ll hit the first two triggers at least,” Ballance said. “I’m thinking we could hit all four triggers. But the whole idea there was to ensure that we had enough money to cover all the essential services. The governor was looking for an ending fund balance of $300 million, but we instead gave him a $200 million balance, and then some triggers in case the revenue estimate was not met.”

Ballance said firefighting costs depend on whether the incident occurs on federal or state lands.

” Here in the Bitterroot is a great example,” she said. “So much of our forest is federal land, so it’s not affected by the state money that’s been put aside, but a lot of the forests are covered by state money. We’re looking at about $30 million that we’ll end with in that fire fund. In the past, it’s been less than that, while in a heavy fire year it’s going to be in the $40 to $50 million range. The governor has an emergency fund of about $16 million, and in a worst case scenario, we can come back for a special session.”

Ballance said if a special session has to be called, the legislators will have a very specific task.

“If you look back in history, there have been several special sessions,” she said. “The last was in 2007, and ironically, the session was called to address funds for fire suppression. We come back into town, we roll up our sleeves and find things in the budget that are not considered essential services or that we might be able to delay spending on, and we make sure that absolutely every dollar that we have is going exactly where it needs to be.”

Senate Bill 261, passes i the last legislative session, is called Budget Stabilization, and in it there are four separate revenue triggers. Phase one is from $0 to $12 million below revenue estimates, phase two is from $12 to $24 million, phase three is $24 to $36 million and phase four is from $36 million and below. See the chart on how those various triggers would affect spending here. 

Ballance said the final revenue estimates won’t be official until mid August, the middle of Montana’s traditional fire season.

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