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Bullock proposes using state wildfire fund for other efforts

Posted November 25

— Gov. Steve Bullock is looking to Montana's wildfire suppression fund to help make up budget shortfalls caused by the state's declining revenues.

The Democratic governor's proposed budget for the next two years earmarks about $25 million from the wildfire fund for other state forestry programs, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported Friday (bit.ly/2gHp5AM).

By using the wildfire funding, the general fund balance can move toward a planned $300 million budget surplus.

Dan Villa, the governor's budget director, says the wildfire fund is near record highs and that the state won't suffer from money being diverted to other purposes.

"Based on our projections, we'll have a solid $50 million to fight fires over the next (two years)," Villa said.

Republican Sen. Pat Connell of Hamilton, who sponsored the bill to create the fund, says the move could put the state's finances at risk in the case of a difficult wildfire season.

The fund contained $73.7 million as of June 30, according to the Legislative Audit Committee.

Forester Bob Harrington with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said the state usually spends between $17 million and $20 million on fires each year, so he's not worried about the governor's plan to take $12.5 million out of the fund in each of the next two years. However, records show the state incurred $71.4 million in firefighting costs in 2013 — the year the fund was created.

The Legislature is likely to make significant changes to Bullock's proposed budget before passing a final version.

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