Executive Director’s Notebook: ‘Fire borrowing’ funding victory fueled by Western Governors

By Jim Ogsbury

The recent approval of the fiscal year 2018 consolidated appropriations bill represents a significant victory for Western Governors by providing long-term funding and a new emergency spending mechanism that will end the practice known as ‘fire borrowing.’

To be sure, there are many notable wins for the West in the bill, including an increase in Payments in Lieu of Taxes and full funding for the Secure Rural Schools program. But the bill’s provision to set aside $2 billion annually for wildfire suppression relieves officials from having to divert funds from forest health and fire prevention programs to fight wildfires.

Montana Governor Steve Bullock told a reporter after the vote, “I’ve been fighting for a fire funding fix since I became attorney general (10 years ago).” As WGA Chair, Governor Bullock elevated that ‘fight’ by launching the Western Governors Forest and Rangeland Management Initiative in 2016 as his central policy effort.

The Initiative’s first-year report included a recommendation for "a comprehensive fix for the two challenges posed by the present wildland fire budget approach: the cost of fire suppression as a share of the agencies’ budgets continues to increase and ... the need to transfer funds from non-fire to fire accounts mid-season when budgeted funds are insufficient."

WGA has been resolute and vocal in its support for a solution to the fire borrowing problem. In just the past five years, the association has formally reached out to Congress and the administration ten times. In addition, WGA has pursued countless conversations on this topic throughout the region and in Washington, D.C.

As recently as January 31, the Governors, “steadfastly reaffirmed their support for a comprehensive fix to budgeting for wildfire costs,” in outreach to the congressional leadership’s “Big Four:” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Minority Leader Charles Schumer, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

That communication was preceded by a similar overture to congressional leadership in September of 2017. I offered testimony in May of 2017 to the House and Senate Subcommittees on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies regarding fiscal year 2018 appropriations that, among other things, encouraged, “efforts to solve the issue of fire borrowing.” WGA had previously called upon Congress to address this issue in 2016, as well as in 2015 and 2014.  Our resolution, Wildland Fire Management and Resilient Landscapes, calls on Congress and the Administration to “finally put an end to ‘fire borrowing.’”

Ultimately, the Governors’ doggedness helped elevate the visibility of "fire borrowing" to such an extent that continued inaction was not an option.  It wasn’t easy, but the effort by Western Governors to find a solution is yet another example of their collaborative, bipartisan work on behalf of the citizens of the West.

Jim Ogsbury is the Executive Director of the Western Governors' Association. Contact him at 303-623-9378 or send an email. Get the latest news about the West and its governors by following the Western Governors' Association on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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