Budget Paused as #AZLeg Focuses on Fire (video)

Telegraph fire near Globe

Governor Doug Ducey has called the Legislature into special session to address the seven fires raging across the state and their aftermath. This is obviously not Arizona’s worst fire season … yet … but this is the first special session to address fire. In fact, 2020 was our worst fire year on record. Why didn’t Ducey bring up fire suppression, mitigation and prevention during the budget process — or in his State of the State address? Arizona’s government doesn’t have to wait for homes, businesses, and hundreds — or thousands — of acres of farmland, ranchland, and desert to be destroyed before we act.

One bill will be heard in the special session, HB2001. If you want to read the one and a half page bill, it is on Request to Speak on the Legislature’s website. Pull down “55th Legislature, Special Session” to see it. There is not a lot of detail, beyond a list of dollar amounts and a general breakdown on how the proposed $100 million appropriation will be spent. For example …

  • $75 million is appropriated to the Department of Forrest and Fire Management to be spent on items such as fire suppression, equipment related to fire suppression, fire mitigation, financial assistance to public and private landowners for emergency repairs to infrastructure damage from fire and more.
  • $25 million (roughly) is appropriated for wildfire mitigation, including $17 million and 122 full-time positions for “inmate firefighting crew supervisors and operating costs;” $4 million for vehicle purchases; $1.4 million for vehicle operating costs; and $2.3 million for “hazardous vegetation removal.”
Telegraph Fire near Globe
Telegraph fire

A joint meeting of the Senate and House Energy and Natural Resources Committees will be held on June 16. The Democrats have a lot of questions about how these funds will be spent and who will be in charge of making these decisions. We are scheduled to vote on HB2001 on Thursday, June 17. (If you want to make an RTS comment, now is the time.)

Why has the Legislature postponed budget negotiations to focus on fire? Because last week Republican Rep. David Cook, whose ranch in Globe is under threat of fire, voted “no” on two parts of the Republican budget and stopped the process. He and other Republicans have been telling leadership for weeks that they don’t like the Flat Tax or other parts of their budget. In his vote explanation, Cook asked why the Speaker of the House and the Republican leadership brought House members back to Phoenix to vote on a budget that didn’t have the votes to pass, when rural Arizona is on fire. He said that rural legislators, like himself, should be in their districts with constituents whose homes and ranches are in jeopardy. Good point!

Cook’s big objection to the budget was the Flat Tax, its impact on the rural towns in his district and the long-term impact on the general fund.

The House Democrats have been asking this questions for two years: Why would the Arizona Legislature vote to give away more than a billion in taxes per year in perpetuity and ignore the likelihood of future emergencies that would require cash on hand, like fire, pandemic or economic downturn?

It’s time for this state to look beyond the immediate crises and plan for the future in a comprehensive manner. Massive fires are not a new thing in Arizona and the Southwest. Chronic drought, wildfires, and intense heat are Arizona’s “bad weather.” They all have one thing in common: climate change. Let’s focus on the problem, rather than the symptoms. HB2001, of course, has no mention of climate change or how these conditions — heat, drought, and fire — work together with insect infestations like the bark beetle to destroy our state’s environment.

Also missing from HB2001 is any basic education on fire prevention for campers, rural homeowners, and the rest of us. It is my understanding that all or most of Arizona’s current fires are human caused. Not to be facetious but where is Smokey the Bear when you need him? Where are the forest rangers and the campground hosts? Where is the Northern Arizona University School of Forestry? (I sure hope they are involved.) Obviously, fire is an issue that needs to be addressed comprehensively to save lives, property and our environment. This special session is long overdue. Thank you, Mr. Cook, for getting the governor’s attention. Now, let’s make sure that the $100 million is appropriated wisely. You can watch live and archived meetings of the Legislature here.

[As of today, June 15, 2021, 40 homes have burned in Arizona, including Speaker Rusty Bowers’ family homestead and weekend get-away outside of Superior. Cook’s ranch is OK but still close to the fire. I talked with Cook at length on Tuesday on the Floor of the House. Can you imagine going out to round up cattle at midnight to save them from fire? I can’t.]