USA — State senators on Thursday passed a bipartisan budget amendment that would carve out $21 million to fund an aerial firefighting fleet this wildfire season. The amendment from Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, and Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, would take the money from the state’s Benefits Management System and funnel it to the Division of Fire Prevention and Safety, which oversees the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps. King said Thursday the money would go toward funding a bill he and Carroll have pending in the Senate, which calls for the state to contract or lease aircraft to fight wildfires in 2014 and beyond. It’s expected to be heard before the Senate Agriculture committee next week. Eric Brown, a spokesman for Gov. John Hickenlooper, said the administration supports the $21 million to fund the fleet, though the interim plan to take the money from the benefits system is merely a placeholder. In a briefing with reporters Thursday, Hickenlooper’s budget director suggested the money might come from Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, emergency reserves and delays to paying back some cash funds a move King supports, though the Joint Budget Committee will have to make the final decision.
A much-anticipated fire report from Hickenlooper’s administration unveiled last week (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_25442155/ report recommends-33-million-fight-colorado-wildfires) said that while the state should not own its own air fleet, money should be spent to possibly contract for use of four helicopters, four single-engine air tankers and two large fixed-winged air tankers, among other suggestions. According to the report, all of this would cost the state about $33 million this year. Hickenlooper’s office supports buying two fixed-wing multi-mission aircraft and contracting for other aircraft, but it doesn’t support the use of two large air tankers a move that cuts an estimated $11.9 million.
The goal, notes the report, is to pinpoint the location of every fire within an hour of the first smoke report and provide some sort of early air support. The current measure from King and Carroll calls for the funding of three helicopters this season, though King said the bill will be amended to directly reflect much of what was outlined in the fire report (http://dfs.state.co.us/)released last week.
Still, Hickenlooper’s administration does not believe King’s bill is necessarily needed because a measure he passed last year allows for the creation of an air fleet. A $21 million appropriation could be made to fund the already existing measure.
“This is not a Republican issue, this is not a Democratic issue, this is a Colorado issue,” King said Thursday. “Wildfires are a clear and present danger in this state.”