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Bullock: Montana budget has full funding for wildfires, pandemic

On Monday, as temperatures topped out in the upper 90s for the second day in a row, and heat advisories were extended until Tuesday evening, the wildfire risk continued to increase. Gov. Steve Bullock said the fire budget is solid. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)

With a hot August ramping up the risk of wildfire, Gov. Steve Bullock announced the state has plenty of money to see it through this fire season and even into the next. But having the money there is no reason for people to be careless with fire.

On Monday, Gov. Bullock gave a press conference to update the situation on both fire suppression funding and the state general fund after five months of dealing with COVID-19. Armed with the final numbers for fiscal year 2020, which ended on June 30, Bullock had nothing but good news for the state’s coffers.

“We headed into this pandemic in a historically strong position financially,” Bullock said. “We were careful stewards of taxpayer dollars, and now Montana is in an enviable financial position compared to other states that are currently weathering budget challenges. And as a result, we are now taking steps to ensure that Montana will be well equipped to continue financially managing this pandemic in the future.”

Based upon the FY20 budget summary, revenues from tax collections exceeded predictions made by the 2019 Legislature by $21 million. That’s in spite of the fact that taxpayers were given an extra grace period to pay last year’s taxes because the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order in March and April caused some to lose income, and some have yet to pay.

In addition, because of state agency budget cuts after COVID-19 required employees to work from home, millions remained in the general fund at the end of FY2020.

So, over the weekend, the Bullock administration transferred $46.7 million from the general fund into the state fire suppression fund, as required by law, bringing the fund to its cap of $101.5 million. The general fund still has $40 million remaining.

“This puts the fire fund at the max cap for the first time in history,” Bullock said. “We’re ensuring that if 2020 does decide to surprise us again – this time with a fire season like the one in 2017 where we spent $65 million on the state side – we’ll be able to cover those costs as well as leave plenty for the 2021 season.”

In 2013, after a number of costly fire seasons since 2000, House Bill 354 created the fire suppression fund to raise money ahead of the need to fight fires. Any state agency savings that exceed 0.5% of the total general fund is required to go into the fire fund.

Based on a 10-year history, the average cost to the state to fight wildfires is $21 million. So as long as we don’t have another 2017, Montana’s fund could cover five years of firefighting.

It appears that Montana could squeak by with a normal fire year. In the bigger fire years like 2017, wildfires often start in mid-July and are made worse by dry, hot, windy conditions.

But this year, as of mid-August, Montana has only two large active fires that are mostly uncontained: the Bear Creek Fire burning more than 6,000 acres near the Idaho-Montana border southwest of Dillon, and the Lion Creek Fire that’s burned about 100 acres in the Swan Range northeast of Condon.

Six other fires are either almost under control or pose no current threat: the 1,300-acre Pumpkin Fire south of Miles City is fully contained; the 130-acre Old Baldy Fire east of Twin Bridges is 50% contained; and the 5-acre Fields Gulch Fire south of Lincoln is 75% contained.

Two small fires started recently near Cougar Creek in the Sapphire Mountains east of Stevensville. The 2-acre Cub Lake Fire in the Bitterroot Selway Wilderness west of Lake Como started on Aug. 7 but appears to have died out on its own.

Most are pretty small and fire crews have been launching aggressive initial attacks to keep them that way. That doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods.

On Monday, as temperatures topped out in the upper 90s for the second day in a row, and heat advisories were extended until Tuesday evening, the wildfire risk continued to increase. A lack of moisture meant about a third of the state, mostly in the south, was at least abnormally dry, while 10% entered a moderate drought by the beginning of August.

Above-normal fire potential is predicted for Montana into September.

More than 60% of wildfires are human-caused, so Bullock appealed to the public to be careful with fire so crews aren’t put in unnecessary danger, not only from fire but also from the coronavirus. Recreate responsibly and harvest crops safely, Bullock said.

“I want to thank all those working hard to keep us all safe while we manage two concurrent challenges. This year is unlike any year before it,” Bullock said. “Just as with COVID-19, prevention is key here. It’s imperative that Montanans take the necessary steps to make their homes and communities fire adapted.”

The state is financially prepared not only for wildfires but also rainy days.

Bullock has fought to get and keep a rainy-day fund since he became governor in 2012. While attorney general, he watched his predecessor, Brian Schweitzer, have to call special sessions of the Legislature to deal with budget shortfalls, one of which was again because of wildfire funding. In his 2013 State of the State address, Bullock told the Legislature he didn’t want to have to do that.

“I have asked that you leave this legislative session with a rainy day fund, enough money in the bank so I don’t have to call the legislature back to Helena eight months or a year from now,” Bullock said in 2013.

Many in the GOP didn’t like having extra money in the state budget, and they repeatedly tried to draw the rainy-day fund down.

During the 2015 Legislature, Republicans introduced three tax-cut bills favoring the wealthy that would have zeroed out Bullock’s $300 million rainy-day buffer. During the 2017 Legislature, when the rainy day fund was finally codified as the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund, Republicans tried to limit the amount deposited in the fund by predicting a $150 million deficit for the biennium that didn’t materialize.

And yet, the monetary padding has saved the state budget three times. It helped the state survive the 2016 drop in oil prices, the 2017 catastrophic wildfires and now, a pandemic.

Bullock said the Reserve Fund still contains $114.2 million, the maximum allowed by law.

“This is the second year in a row that that reserve has been funded to its statutory cap, and it’s available to sustain the budget should revenue collections or expenditures vary from projections as we continue to navigate through the pandemic,” Bullock said. “With this rainy day fund and the fire fund filled to the maximum, and with healthy balances in the general fund, we have strong reserves of $620 million to start the next fiscal year.”

Bullock said that if the next federal COVID-19 stimulus bill includes money for state and local government, that will put Montana that much more ahead of the game as Bullock prepares to leave the governor’s office at the end of the year.

“I will be leaving the state budget better than I found it,” Bullock said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.