After a mini-Wildfire 101 course from the Arizona State Forester, 18 of the 19 members of legislature’s Joint Committee on Natural Resources, Energy, and Water voted in favor of Gov. Doug Ducey’s proposed $100 million fire suppression and mitigation legislation.
Next up for the bill during this Special Session is a quick trip through two Rules Committees on Thursday morning. That should be followed by the House and Senate convening to consider amendments to the two identical bills, SB1001 and HB2001, which are tracking in both chambers.
Wednesday’s hours-long meeting featured a questions and answers session with David Tenney, director of Arizona’s Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFFM) on the same day that two ongoing destructive wildfires near Globe -the Telegraph and the Mescal- merged with nearly 150,000 acres burned.
Ducey called the Special Session for the sole purpose to pass a wildfire-related supplemental appropriations bill. The joint committee discussed many of the bill’s targeted investments for wildfire preparedness, response, and recovery, including $76 million toward fire suppression efforts, recovery efforts, mitigation of post-fire floods, economic assistance for those displaced by fires or post-fire floods, and assistance to landowners for emergency repairs from wildfire-related infrastructure damage.
There is also nearly $25 million appropriated in the bill for DFFM and the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) to partner on wildfire mitigation efforts such as removing hazardous vegetation and fire fuels. The funds include hiring 720 ADC inmates, working in 72 teams of 10 inmates, to target DFFM-designated areas across the state where mitigation is needed. The goal, said Tenney, is for the crews to cover 20,000 acres annually.
Among the questions Tenney was asked was whether Arizona should own a fleet of firefighting aircraft instead of contracting with providers. Tenney was also asked whether DFFM should purchase a handful of $500,000 firetrucks designed for off-road wilderness access that could be “borrowed” to smaller fire departments.
Tenney also noted that as of this week, Arizona’s 2021 fire season will have impacted nearly 300,000 acres. That puts the state of track for its worst fire season in history due to the combination of excessive heat in all 15 counties as well as drought conditions.
Some committee members tried to get Tenney to discuss whether Arizona’s increasingly larger wildfires are the result of climate change, but the director stuck to the purpose of the legislation -and the Special Session- which is to ensure funding for activities which can have an immediate affect on reducing fires or limiting the damage from fires.
The climate change comments received pushback from Sen. David Gowan (LD-14), who said no one is disputing there is climate change.
“Climate change happens every decade, happens every century, millennium, we have climate change,” he said.
Some Democrats questioned whether the Ducey-backed appropriations bill goes far enough as they preferred legislation addressing more than the immediate critical need. However, committee chairs Rep. Gail Griffin (R-LD14) and Sen. Sine Kerr (R-LD13) guided the discussion back onto the purpose of the legislation – to address the wildfire and post-fire flooding crisis facing Arizona now.
The only no vote was cast by Sen. Juan Mendez (D-LD26).
On Tuesday, June 15, the Arizona Legislature will convene for the special session and is expected to vote on a proposal by Governor Doug Ducey later this week. Ducey and legislative leaders announced the special session’s goal is to approve $100 million to combat and prevent wildfires, equip firefighters and communities with the resources they need, and prepare for after effects such as flooding and mudslides.
“This wildfire season has already been devastating, and we still have a long, hot summer ahead of us. While Arizona has strong wildfire suppression and prevention efforts in place, we need to do more,” said Governor Ducey. “Our brave firefighters must have all the necessary tools, resources and support to fight the blazes and stay safe. We need to protect our communities from floods and other disasters that could result from these wildfires. Hard-hit communities and nonprofits offering support need financial assistance to weather the devastation of this wildfire season and protect families in need. We can get this done — and we can do it in an urgent, bipartisan manner. Thank you to Legislative leadership for coming together to develop an investment package that will help so many Arizonans.”
Governor Ducey, state fire professionals, and legislative leadership have identified targeted investments for wildfire preparedness, response and recovery in consultation with impacted local communities. The investments include:
$24.6 million for a partnership between the Department of Forest and Fire Management and the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry to reduce wildfire risk to Arizona communities by conducting hazardous vegetation removal; and
$75 million for fire suppression efforts, recovery efforts including post-fire floods, economic assistance for those displaced, and assistance to landowners for emergency repairs to infrastructure damaged by wildfires.
On June 9, the Governor issued two Declarations of Emergency in response to the Telegraph and Mescal Fires, making available up to $400,000 for response efforts.
Gov. Doug Ducey was expected to call a special session any day now to address the legislative stalemate of 11 budget bills which have been the subject of some opposition even among the Republican majority. So his announcement Thursday of a special session related solely to funding for natural disasters caught many lawmakers off guard.
“I am calling a special session to make sure we have the resources needed to contain current wildfires, possible flooding, and any other natural disasters that arise from this emergency,” Ducey said in his announcement. He did not include a start date for the special session but legislators have been told it will take place next week.
News of the special session unrelated to an overall budget package came as Ducey and key Republican legislators representing communities burning under the Telegraph and the Mescal fires toured the damage. It also came one day after the governor said he would be agreeable to working with the Democrat caucus to resolve the budget stalemate that threatens Ducey’s last chance transition Arizona to a flat rate income tax.
Democrats, however, have been outspoken against the current wording of the flat tax portion of the budget package, although some have left the door open for passing the majority of the spending bills, as well as a tax cut funded by Arizona’s more than $1 billion surplus.
It is more likely, however, that Ducey and legislative leaders will need to amend the 11 bills in order to get the necessary 31 votes in the House and 16 votes in the Senate. If that cannot be done in the next week or so, the governor can call another special session dealing exclusively with the budget. Or lawmakers could end up approving with a bare-bones “skinny” budget to avert a state government shutdown on July 1.
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita tweeted Thursday she supports Ducey’s special session to deal with the wildfires. But she could not resist a poke at the governor for his response this year compared to last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Ugenti-Rita, Ducey’s “leadership solution” last year was “to shutdown the economy, support the legislature prematurely ending session, issuing 50+ executive orders and steadfastly refusing to convene a special session” which she and other lawmakers requested.
“Now, under the guise of another emergency, you want to wait until next week to call the legislature into special session. I find your call for a special session in this scenario incongruent with your past decisions,” she tweeted, pointing out the legislature was in session on Thursday “ready and available to help” but both chambers adjourned until next Monday because key lawmakers were with Ducey touring fire damaged communities.
A vocal critic of this year’s budget package is Sen. Paul Boyer, who has called for one-time tax cuts for one-time revenues. “Rebate taxpayer’s money now,” he tweeted earlier in the week. “That is conservative.”
Some lawmakers in the Republican majority like Boyer object to the amount of the surplus which would get returned to taxpayers as tax cuts under the current budget bills. They point to the fact the cuts would likely also result in less shared revenue to Arizona’s cities and towns, while not focusing enough on the state’s debt, including serious under-funding issues with the Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System.
The Joint Legislative Budget Committee and staff from Ducey’s office are expected to continue working on a proposed compromise over the next few days.