My Conversation with Montana’s Governor About Wildfire Season Among Other Things
This morning, Governor Gianforte stopped by the Cat Country studio and I asked him some questions that are on everyone's mind right now. See if you like his answers.
On Wildfire Danger in the State
Paul Mushaben: Things are kind of tough right now, and that's, that's the first thing I want to ask you, Governor. We haven't seen conditions like this for a long time in our state. What have we done as a state? What have we done in the governor's office, so far, to prepare for what is inevitable, for what is coming? What are we doing as a state right now?
Governor Gianforte: Yeah, so the short answer is, yes. We have extremely dry conditions. River flows are at the lowest they've been in recorded history. We have high heat. We just haven't had enough precipitation. It's been devastating for ag. It's gonna affect our tourism industry. If we shut down our rivers, it just it ripples through the entire economy.
So first, on fires, we've had 800 fires since January. We've already burned 76,000 acres. Well, in a normal year, we burn about 70,000. So we've already burned more acres now than we burn in a normal year. We are prepared. I've met with the Forest Service, (and) with BLM. DNRC is the lead firefighting agency for the state. I've had a meeting about once a week with those groups to make sure we're ready. Our fire suppression funds are at a level that is five times higher than what our normal annual expenses are. So the resources are there.
We've had three fires get away from us so far out of 800. Our firefighters do a tremendous job but we're at the very beginning. Especially going into this fourth of July weekend as it relates to fires. I'm just asking--we're not going to mandate stuff--but I'm just asking people to use common sense. Don't be shooting fireworks into a hayfield. I mean, it's a tinderbox out there. And for ag, we took action yesterday to communicate with the USDA about the need to make every single county in the state under our drought designation. This is the first step towards getting an emergency declaration so that we can get resources. We need to be able to...help our producers, like yourself Paul, just have some tools to deal with this because Mother Nature is not dealing us a very good hand.
Paul Mushaben: Do you have to work in coordination with the federal government to get a lot of this stuff changed?
Governor Gianforte: We can declare an emergency here. That frees up things, but we do need help from the USDA. I sent a letter to the Secretary of Agriculture yesterday to expand this drought designation. That's the first step towards getting the emergency declaration so we can get the resources.
Paul Mushaben: Are we short on fire fighting resources and equipment or are we in pretty good shape statewide?
Governor Gianforte: We're in pretty good shape. We have memos of understanding with surrounding states and we have first response (which) is typically handled by local counties. Quickly, state resources are brought in. Forest Service, the incident teams--if we need additional help, we can call on our neighbors. We have private contracts with folks like Billings Flying Service and Neptune and others to bring in air assets.
But I just want to say again, most of the wildland fires we see in the state are human-caused. Please folks, be careful when you're out there.
Paul Mushaben: Oh, that could help us unbelievably when it comes to these things. I know from the DNRC, a lot of these programs they've implemented like manning the rural fire departments throughout the day during the dry season. If you keep them small, that's the best way to fight a fire. It works great.
Governor Gianforte: I was down on this Robertson Draw fire down in Belfry. That fire started at 10 a.m. on a Sunday by an individual and the fire didn't get reported till 3 p.m. By then it was up in the timber. We got assets on it by five o'clock but it was away from us. Honestly, if that individual had made a phone call at 10 a.m. you could have gone in with a couple of water balloons and put the thing out and we would have had a totally different outcome. We lost, I think, eight or nine residences. I'll be down in Red Red Lodge later tonight for the rodeo--that thing was burning at the end of Main Street. We're just thankful it didn't get into town.
On Loosening Restrictions Related to COVID-19
Paul Mushaben: It's a serious situation. It's probably the most serious thing we are facing right now because we're doing well with the COVID thing. I see you are loosening up the restrictions.
Governor Gianfote: That's my Independence Day present to everybody. We got rid of the emergency declaration yesterday. We did it at the Montana Club here in Billings. It was interesting to talk to Bob Pal and some of the staff there. They were having trouble finding workers, as most small businesses do. We changed the unemployment benefits to help incent people get back to work. They saw an uptick in application since we made that change. And I was thrilled to rescind the emergency declaration there yesterday. So, it's been a tough year for businesses, families--just communities. But we're on the other side of this pandemic now, and I was pleased to rescind the emergency order yesterday. So we're back to normal. I can't think of a better thing to give Montana going into this Independence Day.
Paul Mushaben: Independence. Yeah, we got our independence. Hey, how much COVID money did we get from Uncle Sam in the state?
Governor Gianforte: The last tranche: $2.7 billion.
Paul Muhaben: $2.7 billion? That's what the B.
Governor Gianforte: Yeah, it's more than our annual budget in the state of Montana.
Paul Mushaben: And what are the stipulations? Does it have to be spent in the next year or so?
Governor Gianfore: There are four years. But the honest answer, Paul, is we don't know yet because the feds haven't told us.
If we're going to spend our kids' and our grandkids' money, let's do it in a way that our kids and our grandkids benefit. So, working with the legislature, we created four buckets of money, per the instructions we had. One is broadband. We allocated about $275 million to close the digital divide. There's a committee working on that with our private sector partners. There's a second bucket focused on water and sewer. It's going to allow us to do a lot of water and sewer projects across the state we which we would have bonded otherwise. So that'll reduce the debt burden on Montana. The third bucket is economic development. We're going to focus on stuff that's going to have long-term value, like increasing meat packing capacity... And the final one is Health and Human Services. We're looking at mental health and addiction recovery, which is important for our communities as well.
On tax relief for Montanans
Paul Mushaben. You can't use any of that (money) for like tax relief, or anything like that, or supplementing other state agencies to where we could reduce the requirements from state citizens contributions? Is there a clause in there?
Governor Gianforte: Yes, we can't do that. I have good news for folks. I signed 550 bills so far this year, and at least six or seven of those were tax reduction bills. So because we were prudent in the way we put the budget together for the state of Montana, I'm pleased to tell you, I said we're going to hold the line on new spending. We did. Our budget that we approved in the legislature, even with the statutory increases we had to have in there for cost of living adjustments, the total budget grew less than 1% per year. That allowed us to give $120 million back to Montana taxpayers over two years. So taxes are going down.
Paul Mushaben: Good stuff. Governor Greg Gianforte, we appreciate you stopping in when you have time.
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