Gov. Kate Brown announces vetoes to help fund wildfire response

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has announced a list of planned vetoes she says will help the state more nimbly respond to the wildfire emergency.

Gov. Kate Brown will veto a number of budget adjustments passed by legislators last month, restoring planned cuts to a handful of state agencies while scrapping $100 million lawmakers had earmarked for emergency spending.

Brown issued notice of the line-item vetoes in two budget bills Monday afternoon, touting the move as a way to keep more money in state coffers while funding a response to dozens of wildfires burning in the western part of the state. Brown is required under the constitution to provide at least five days' notice before issuing vetoes.

“Until we understand the total impacts and costs, we must both help Oregonians and be judicious with our funds,” Brown wrote in a letter to House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney on Monday. “Given the advent of the wildfires ... I am writing to you today to outline vetoes that I intend to make to ensure that state agencies fighting wildfires have necessary resources in place to respond to the ongoing statewide wildfires state of emergency.”

Brown plans to veto portions of two bills the Legislature passed in an August special session that was largely focused on balancing a state budget that’s been torpedoed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In total, lawmakers passed six bills directly or tangentially related to budget matters. The governor is targeting two of them.

The first is House Bill 5723, the central budget bill of the special session.

In a move step that lawmakers had privately braced for, Brown is first eliminating $100 million that the Legislature gave to its own emergency board in order to deal with pandemic-related cost increases on health care and social services. That money will instead be kept in state coffers.

Brown is also blocking more than $17 million in proposed cuts to a variety of state agencies: the Department of Forestry, Military Department, Oregon State Police and Department of Environmental Quality. Each of those agencies has played a large role in addressing wildfires that have broken out in the last week, and many of Brown’s vetoes will preserve funds dedicated for purposes such as fire protection, emergency management and the Office of State Fire Marshal.

Not all vetoes are wildfire centered. For instance, she also plans to block more than $3 million in cuts related to early childhood learning.

With vetoes to another bill, House Bill 4304, Brown will preserve a $200,000 state account dedicated to housing low-income fire evacuees, among other things.

All told, the governor’s vetoes pull back $65 million lawmakers had allocated, bolstering the amount currently expected to be left over at the end of the current two-year budget. The state’s budget picture could shift radically next week, when state economists are scheduled to deliver an updated budget forecast.

It was unclear Monday whether Brown would face pushback from lawmakers. Inquiries sent to a number of high-ranking legislators were not returned, but Kotek’s office issued a statement registering her concern that Brown plans to pull back the $100 million in funding for the emergency board.

“Oregon is in a pandemic and an economic recession, and this double whammy is having dramatic health and economic consequences, in addition to the tragic wildfires across the state,” Danny Moran, a spokesman for Kotek, said in an e-mail. “We know more people than ever are relying on critical services, and she believes we should do everything possible to fund these services as needs increase.”

In the Senate, Republican Leader Fred Girod immediately blasted the governor’s announcement as political.

“Governor Brown wants more money for fire suppression and state police, but only with an emergency actively burning down the state’s doorstep," said Girod, R-Lyons, whose home burned to the ground in the Beachie Creek Fire east of Salem. "After years of cutting these budgets, the action is a day late and a dollar short.”

Lawmakers have the ability to override vetoes with a two-thirds vote in each chamber. Only one of the bills in question, HB 4304, cleared that threshold on initial passage.

Brown on Monday also sent legislators a signal that the state should plan to spend big as it works to address the wildfires. In her letter, she asked Kotek and Courtney to retain at least $150 million in the fund lawmakers use for emergency spending priorities while not in session.

The Legislature’s emergency board is scheduled to meet next week, when lawmakers are expected to take up a wildfire relief package. Brown wrote that she has directed agencies to work up a second relief package aimed at wildfire relief for a later meeting, “after we better understand the full impacts to our communities.”

“Until we understand the total impacts and costs, we must both help Oregonians and be judicious with our funds,” Brown wrote.

While the cost of fending off Oregon’s current spate of wildfires is still unknown, it’s expected to be one of the most expensive fire years on record. What that actually means for state coffers might not become clear for some time, as the state works to determine how much of the tab can be picked up by federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Oregon is also unique among states in paying millions every year in premiums for an insurance policy that helps limit fire risks. Once the state hits at least $50 million in firefighting costs, the policy covers the next $25 million.

As of Labor Day, as the wildfires began in earnest, the state estimated it had spent a little over $30 million fighting wildfires. A more recent estimate was not available Monday.

Brown told Kotek and Courtney she was “asking the Oregon Department of Forestry to estimate as quickly as possible the cost of fighting these catastrophic fires, and I am working with our congressional delegation to get substantial reimbursement from FEMA for as many of these costs as possible.”

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