Wildfire Funding Bill Goes To Governor, Budget Passage Anticipated

[Photo courtesy Department of Forestry and Fire Management]

By Terri Jo Neff

In a very efficient use of 72 hours, the Arizona Legislature finished a special session called by Gov. Doug Ducey to approve a $100 million supplemental appropriation bill which will fund fire suppression and fire mitigation efforts across the state.   

“This will help our brave firefighters, at-risk communities and so many Arizonans,” said Ducey, who is expected to sign the HB2001 on Friday. The bill passed with bipartisan support from 24 of 30 senators and 56 of 60 house members. 

Much of the funds are earmarked for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFFM) but millions will also be spent for inmate and non-inmate labor related to work crews from the Arizona Department of Corrections.

The legislation addresses targeted investments toward the labor and equipment needed for wildfire prevention and preparedness, as well as response and recovery operations. Some of the funding is also earmarked for economic assistance for those displaced by fires or post-fire floods. 

Only minimal amendments were made to the proposed legislation which had been sent to lawmakers earlier this week with Ducey’s blessing. One amendment changed a job title while another set a $10 million cap for funds to be used as a last resort for private landowners who experience infrastructure damage related to a fire or post-fire flooding. 

That reference to landowners triggered one of the biggest debates in the House after Rep. Andres Cano (D-LD3) sought to include $5 million dollars of “last resort” funds for small business owners, many of whom may suffer losses from wildfires but do not own the land on which their business operates. 

Rep. Gail Griffin, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, Energy, and Water, opposed the amendment even though she understood Cano’s concern. The problem, explained Griffin (R-LD14), is that a lot of effort was put into drafting the special session legislation and any extra items lawmakers want to fund should be addressed once back in regular session.

Cano’s amendment died on a voice vote. But he attempted to add the amendment back on via a motion once the main bill made it to the House floor. Cano’s effort failed, but it triggered a roll call vote by each representative.

It was revealed during the roll call that Rep. Travis Grantham (R-LD12) had been given permission by House Speaker Rusty Bowers to vote via text message because Grantham was in an aircraft at the time. A rules challenge was sustained which forced Bowers to disallow Grantham’s no vote on Cano’s motion. It also meant Grantham was unable to cast a vote for the fire suppression bill. 

Arizona State Forester David Tenney, who is also DFFM’s director, warned lawmakers during a meeting Wednesday that the destructive Telegraph and Mescal wildfires near Globe are just a glimpse of what is expected to be a severe wildfire season in Arizona. He said last year more than 900,000 acres burned statewide; as of Thursday 300,000 acres have burned in 2021 with months of other fires expected.

One-quarter of the $100 million appropriation will serve a dual role: it will fund several ongoing fire industry positions in addition to 720 ADC inmates who will perform fire fuel or vegetation mitigation at sites throughout the state. Tenney says he hopes the crews can clear 20,000 acres annually.

In addition to Grantham, several lawmakers did not participate in the final vote on the fire bill even though remote “Zoom” voting is allowed. They were Rep. Joseph Chaplik (R-LD23) along with Sens. Lela Alston (D-LD24), Sally Ann Gonzales (D-LD3), Tyler Pace (R-LD25), and Kelly Townsend (R-LD16).

Those who voted against the bill were Sens. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-LD23) and Juan Mendez (D-LD26), as well as Reps. Melody Hernandez (D-LD26) and Athena Salman (D-LD26).

Up next for the legislature is trying to pass an 11-bill budget package which had the blessing from Ducey after it was announced Arizona had a nearly $2 billion surplus. The current fiscal year ends June 30 so no new budget would mean a partial state government shutdown.

There has been a stalemate in both chambers related to the three key points of the package: how much to allocate for new spending versus paying down debt, how much of the surplus to refund to taxpayers, and whether or not to transition Arizona to a flat-rate income tax.

To pass any of the 11 bills requires 31 votes in the House and 16 in the Senate. That happens to coincide with the number of Republicans in both chambers, but some members of that caucus have refused at different times to vote for the bills unless changes are made. Everyone is expected back to work Monday in hopes of resolving enough differences to secure the required votes.

Then attention will need to turn to 22 bills which Ducey vetoed when he grew frustrated with the lack of progress on the budget. The House and Senate have reintroduced all 22 bills but have not taken final action to reapprove them. There is also a chance that all or some of the governor’s vetoes could be the subject of a veto override vote.