New law changes how state of Montana funds wildfire supression

2013-08-19T04:45:00Z 2014-08-06T08:20:31Z New law changes how state of Montana funds wildfire supression

A new law has changed how the state of Montana pays for its share of wildfire suppression costs by setting aside the money before fires occur, instead having to come up with the cash months later after the fire season ends.

House Bill 354, by Rep. Pat Connell, R-Hamilton, passed with bipartisan support, and Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, signed it into law. It took effect May 1.

The new law represents a major change in how the state will pay for its share of fire suppression costs.

“I consider it my signature piece of legislation so far, as it effectively will save Montana taxpayers an average of $23 million annually, and finally, by establishing a statutory process to fund wildland fire suppression,” said Connell, a forestry consultant in his second term in the House.

The $23 million is the average of how much the state has appropriated for fire suppression annually in recent years, he said.

Bullock’s budget director, Dan Villa, and the state forester Bob Harrington, also are praising the law.

It directs money from certain sources into a special revenue account to cover wildfire suppression costs. The fund is capped at $100 million.

“God help us all if we exceed a fire bill of $100 million,” Connell said.

General fund money no longer will have to be appropriated, thus improving its status fiscally at the Legislature, he said.

Instead, money from these sources will automatically roll into the special revenue account year after year, providing a steady stream of cash for fire suppression, unless a future legislative session changes it. One source of funding will last for three years.

Recent tallies by the Governor’s Office of Budget and Program and the Legislative Fiscal Division shows the wildfire suppression fund is now at $51.7 million.


Here’s the budget office’s breakdown this year:

  • $25.5 million in excess corporate license or income tax revenues. The law provides that any revenue from this tax that is more than what the Legislature estimated goes into the fire suppression fund for the next three years.
  • $13.3 million from budget reversions. These are appropriations to state agencies that they didn’t completely spend by the end of the budget year on June 30. The law provides that any reversions in excess of 0.5 percent of total general fund must be transferred to this fund.
  • $11.9 million left from the appropriations in HB3, the bill funding the supplemental spending for fire suppression costs and other unanticipated spending.
  • $943,867 from money not spent from the governor’s fund to deal with costs associated with emergencies such as fires and floods.

Connell said it makes sense to provide for a dedicated firefighting fund instead of scrambling to pass a supplemental appropriation through the Legislature to cover fire costs months after the money was spent.

“Such supplemental expenditures come from subsequent tax revenue, so that Montanans and their representatives fundamentally start off their budgetary process ‘in the hole,’ ” Connell said.

State forester Harrington of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said he is “really satisfied” with the new law.

“It’s more money than we’ve ever had,” he said of the $51.7 million. “It won’t change our operations at all. We are still very focused on the most cost-effective way to suppress the fires that we have jurisdiction for.”

As of last Monday, the state’s share of firefighting costs so far this year was just $2.2 million, according to John Grassy, DNRC spokesman.

That’s a fraction of the state’s $56 million bill last year to cover its share of fire suppression costs, Harrington said.

The state forester, too, said he supports having the new fund rather than having to get the Legislature to pass a supplemental appropriation.

“For us operationally, we always had the confidence that somehow and some way, the Legislature is going to pay, but now the money’s in the bank,” Harrington said. “The money is there. That’s a comfort not only to me, but also to the director.”


Gov. Bullock, as a top budget priority, wanted to address unfunded liabilities before undertaking any new programs, said Villa, his budget director. Fire suppression costs fell into that category.

“Now instead of looking back, we have a pool that, in an ongoing fashion, can fund this,” said Villa, a former legislator. “Now we’re paying forward.”

Bullock traveled to New York City after the Legislature adjourned to meet with representatives of the three rating agencies – Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s. Their ratings help determine interest rates when the state issues debt such as bonding.

The higher a state’s bond ratings, the lower its interest rates on a project. That in turn makes it less expensive for a state to issue debt.

“The rating agencies are very excited about the bill,” said Villa, who accompanied Bullock.

Villa said Montana’s method of paying for fire suppression costs prior to 2007 was “just pay backward.” The Legislature would approve the payment of the state’s fire suppression bills in the winter.

“Some vendors would go months without getting paid,” Villa said.

During a 2007 special legislative session when Gov. Brian Schweitzer was governor, the Legislature made a $40 million appropriation to a fund to cover wildfire suppression costs.

“It took about five years to exhaust that,” Harrington said.

The law provides that when the fund hits $100 million, any excess money goes to the state general fund.

In addition, it provides that up to $5 million ever two years may be used for fuel reduction, mitigation and forest restoration, such as the purchase of equipment for volunteer fire departments. Connell credited House Appropriations Chairman Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip for this idea.

He praised the work of Villa, Ankney, Reps. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena, and Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, on the bill.

“This was kind of a group effort,” Connell said.

Chuck Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached by email at: or by phone at (406) 447-4066 or (800) 525-4920.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(5) Comments

  1. Treeworks
    Report Abuse
    Treeworks - August 19, 2013 5:21 pm
    It is nice to live in a state where fiscal responsibility is still alive. Wildfires are climate driven phenomenon and the new norm is more wildfires during the summer. Fuels may change where fires are fought and how severely they burn but there will still be wildfires - and fast moving grass fires tend to be the most dangerous. State agencies have learned a lot about fighting wildfires and are doing a great job so far this year - far better than when things started to blow up in 2000 so ensuring their ability to continue is very smart. Yes, better management of federal lands would significantly help suppression efforts and managing that creates revenue as the state does ought to be common sense. Trees grow and die, and may regrow if the seed source is not destroyed by severe fire - which competent harvesting can moderate - the evidence is overwhelming.
  2. Aberdeen
    Report Abuse
    Aberdeen - August 19, 2013 2:05 pm
    BSU & Dubs - your hatred of all things Obama and Environmental is sadly misplaced: these are STATE lands we're talking about, not under Federal jurisdiction or laws! So look beyond your prejudices and try to evaluate the facts presented in this article before running off. Few if anyone would ever accuse Bob Harrington of being a "radical environmentalist", yet he thinks this is the right thing to do? Or you can just regress back to your old motto of "I've made up my mind; don't confuse me with facts!"
  3. Dubs
    Report Abuse
    Dubs - August 19, 2013 10:11 am
    I agree BSUjack! One more requirement has to be put in place and that is when ever a environmental organization files a law suite after an area has been designated for fuel reduction (logging) they have to post a bond equal to the anticipated amount required to send in firefighters and suppress a fire. They have millions to file law suites and stop logging, now let them stand up and pay for the loss or resources if it burns as a result of a wildfire. If, heaven forbid, life is lost, they will be criminally charged for manslaughter.
  4. BSUjack
    Report Abuse
    BSUjack - August 19, 2013 8:49 am
    23 million is a whole lot of eventual tax money required to fight fires ! I can remember when we were allowing logging to produce taxes and jobs from harvesting timber to manufacturing wood products. Then we had people and equipment in the woods who's jobs were dependent upon fighting fires when they started. Their jobs depended upon saving timber. These jobs also made healthy forests with no shin tangle brush that increases fire potential. Because of "closing down the woods" that stops logging and good forest management practices, we now have small fires making big fires, because of specie "environmental" protection. We now know how to harvest logs and forests better. Why not let us back in the woods to help stop fires create jobs, and a healthy forest habitat, and a multitude of taxes to fund such things as schools, transportation. We can do it together with the environment, like we used to ?? Then we won't have to depend upon Obama for his "Money In View Of Taxes" check he was sending to us and now wants to take it back !!! ???
  5. Kojack
    Report Abuse
    Kojack - August 19, 2013 5:57 am
    let it burn! Its the same thing year after year. Time to let it go.
Missoulian Civil Dialogue Policy

Civil Dialogue Policy for Commenting on

We provide this community forum for readers to exchange ideas and opinions on the news of the day. Passionate views, pointed criticism and critical thinking are welcome. Comments can only be submitted by registered users. By posting comments on our site, you are agreeing to the following terms:

Commentary and photos submitted to the Missoulian ( may be published or distributed in print, electronically or other forms. Opinions expressed in's comments reflect the opinions of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of the Missoulian or its parent company. See the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy for more information.

Our guidelines prohibit the solicitation of products or services, the impersonation of another site user, threatening or harassing postings and the use of vulgar, abusive, obscene or sexually oriented language, defamatory or illegal material. You may not post content that degrades others on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability or other classification. It's fine to criticize ideas, but ad hominem attacks on other site users are prohibited. Users who violate those standards may lose their privileges on

You may not post copyrighted material from another publication. (Link to it instead, using a headline or very brief excerpt.)

No short policy such as this can spell out all possible instances of material or behavior that we might deem to be a violation of our publishing standards, and we reserve the right to remove any material posted to the site.

Add Comment
You must Login to comment.

Click here to get an account it's free and quick