Rainy Day Fund unlikely for wildfires

Rainy Day Fund unlikely for wildfires

13 September 2011

published by www.kxan.com

USA — Perry’s office: $6.4 billion fund a future option.

The argument over whether state lawmakers should tap the Rainy Day Fund in Texas has resurfaced, as wildfires continue to burn across the state.

“Texas has a Rainy Day Fund, and certainly the extreme wildfire conditions across Texas I think are pretty important to say that we need help,” said Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association.

In March, it seemed that Perry would agree with Barron’s statement. In a statewide teleforum hosted by Texans for Fiscal responsibility, Perry said:

“One of the things that I remind people and why it’s so important to protect that Rainy Day Fund is that it is our insurance policy against a major natural disaster. You take a category 5 storm, a hurricane of that monstrous size up the Houston Ship Channel, and the devastation would be almost unthinkable, incomprehensible from the standpoint of how much damage to cost it does, and for Texans to be caught in a situation where they did not have a substantial buffer in that Rainy Day Fund, it could be catastrophic for this state economically.”

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Perry’s stance against using the fund held strong and won out in both the regular and special legislative sessions. Democrats and teaching groups wanted to use part of what is estimated to soon be the $6.4 billion fund to aid a severely slashed education budget. Schools had $4 billion in cuts.

Now, a group of 14 Democratic House members has sent a letter to the governor, saying: “You alone have the power to call a special session of the Texas Legislature for the purpose of accessing Rainy Day Fund money to battle the fires raging across Texas.”

The Texas Forest Service said the cost to fight these fires is now more than $60 million – state money that agency and other responders just do not have.

“We can’t budget for that ahead of time,” said Lucy Nashed, Perry’s spokeswoman. “We need to know how much the federal government will reimburse, as well. The Rainy Day Fund is definitely a backup and an option.”

So it looks like any extra funding might have to come in the 2013 regular legislative session – a wait those lawmakers said already strapped responders will not be able to afford. Asking for repayment in a future sessions has worked in the past, but the state has also never had such a big budget shortfall. Lawmakers cut $15 billion for the next biennium.

One other option is the $49 million Disaster Contingency Fund, but again the governor has control over that, too.

In addition to the firefighting costs, homeowners and business owners are wracking up plenty of payments, as well. Since Labor Day weekend, the Insurance Council of Texas said the entire state’s damage comes to $250 million, while Bastrop County alone adds up to $150 million.

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