A major hearing took place this week in the Senate as the Ways and Means Committee heard SB 5996 for the first time.
This bill, known as the Wildfire Prevention and Suppression Act, was recently proposed and is intended to create a dedicated program for providing funding to improve the fire-fighting capabilities of our state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and for forest health activities. DNR has the primary fire fighting responsibility on our state’s public lands, as well as numerous acres of other privately-owned lands.
Counties are interested in this bill for a variety of reasons. Counties are trusted beneficiaries of several thousand acres of DNR-owned and managed timberlands. The overall forest health and wildland fire risk associated with those lands directly impacts the revenues that they produce. Those revenues are provided to counties and are a critical component in paying to provide the services for which counties are responsible.
Additionally, many county residents reside in areas that are prone to risks from wildland fire. These areas are known as the wildland-urban interface. The county provides services that address public health and safety concerns of those residents.
Rural lands, including public lands, have a significant impact on the quality of life for the people who live in our counties. If those lands are on fire and closed for access, and the local air quality is poor due to smoke from wildfires, it has significant negative impacts for residents. In addition, the condition of our state’s public lands can also impact a county’s economy.
Many rural counties enjoy robust tourism industries which are the direct result of the recreational opportunities offered by vast landscapes of public lands. When those lands are burning, visitors go elsewhere, and businesses suffer. Accordingly, county revenues suffer as does their ability to provide services.
In the years 2017-2019, the state enacted laws requiring DNR to develop a forest health assessment and treatment framework designed to address the forest health issues facing our state and our counties. They included specific goals to assess and treat 1 million acres of land at risk for wildfire by the year 2033.
Fire suppression funding is currently provided to DNR from the state General Fund. Funding for forest health is provided by the state Capital Budget through the sale of government bonds. In other words, or by the state acquiring additional debt.
Since 2013, annual DNR fire suppression expenditures have significantly exceeded appropriations. Average annual costs are currently $153 million. When costs exceed appropriations, additional funding is provided in supplementary budgets from the General Fund, budget stabilization accounts, disaster response accounts, or the state rainy day fund.
If approved, the bill would impose a .52% tax on property-casualty insurance premiums (like auto and homeowner’s insurance) sold in the state. It would increase the current 2% rate to 2.52%. According to the fiscal note prepared for the bill, the tax increase would generate $89.9 million in the 2019-2021 biennium and $124 million per biennium after that. According to Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who provided testimony at the hearing, the average monthly increase per household is estimated to be $2.00 per month.
Revenues generated by SB 5996 would go to a newly created fund, the wildfire prevention, and suppression account. Use of the funds from this account are prioritized for the following activities in the following order:
- emergency firefighting;
- fire preparedness activities, like funding for full-time firefighters, purchasing additional aerial assets, training, etc.;
- fire suppression activities for other state agencies as appropriate;
- fire prevention activities, including firewise and fire-adapted communities programs; and
- forest health activities.
The funding could only be used for forest health activities once the fund balance in the account exceeds $80 million.
In her testimony, Commissioner Franz spoke passionately about the state’s obligations to provide the highest possible safety and training standards for our state’s wildland firefighters. She expressed frustration over the agency’s abilities to provide enough modern equipment, mentioning specifically DNR’s helicopter fleet which numbers only seven and dates to the Vietnam War. She expressed concern that our state’s fire season has grown from three to nine months on an annual basis, that Washington is ranked among the highest in the nation for states facing wildland fire risk, yet DNR employs only 43 full time firefighters.
Finally, Commissioner Franz expressed some satisfaction toward the end of her remarks by stating DNR has proven that they can keep 95% of the wildland fire starts below 10 acres in size if they have the right equipment and personnel in the right places.
Those testifying at the hearing in support of this bill included the Washington Public Employees Association, The Nature Conservancy, Washington Forest Protection Association, Washington Public Utility District Association, the Washington State Council of Firefighters, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Those opposed were insurance providers, the Association of Washington Business, and the Washington Construction Industry Council.
WSAC is currently reviewing this bill and its potential impacts, both good and bad, on our members and constituents. We have not yet decided if we will take an official position.