Idaho


Eye on Boise: Politics hinder wildfire funding bill

SUNDAY, AUG. 24, 2014

A year ago, Idaho GOP Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, along with Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, gathered at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise to push the federal government to tap disaster funds when firefighting costs balloon above allocated amounts. Their goal is to stop cutting into fire-prevention and forest management programs that could prevent future fires.

Their bipartisan legislation had been picking up support in both houses – Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson is among the House sponsors, along with Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon – but paradoxically suffered a setback earlier this year after President Barack Obama not only endorsed it but included it in his budget.

“That spurred some folks to be cautious about it,” said Lindsay Nothern, Crapo’s press secretary. “Honestly, it’s been kind of bottled up. It’s been affected by politics.”

The House version of the bill has 131 co-sponsors, including Idaho 1st District GOP Rep. Raul Labrador. The Senate version has 18 co-sponsors including Risch.

In the House, “Some folks are concerned about changing the spending matrix, primarily Paul Ryan, head of the budget committee,” Nothern said. “We did go out and get a CBO report that showed it is budget-neutral, because we already spend disaster money on disasters such as this.”

He added, “There is support for it among leadership in both the Senate and the House, on both sides of the aisle.” But on its first attempt at passage, Nothern said, the proposal got lumped in with other issues including the president’s border proposal, and it didn’t pass. “We are hoping for a stand-alone bill, and then the only opposition we have is Ryan.”

He said backers of the measure are hoping they can persuade Ryan to drop his opposition by showing it won’t spend new money.

Now, a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that the problem is worsening. It documents how costs allocated to fighting wildfires have grown from 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s overall budget in 1995 to 42 percent today – even before so-called “fire borrowing” is taken into account, in which the Forest Service borrows from other areas of its budget once it’s used its allocated amount for firefighting but blazes are still going.

The USDA report shows that staffing for managing national Forest Service lands has dropped by 35 percent since 1998, while fire staffing has increased by 110 percent. Even before fire borrowing is taken into account, funding to support recreation has dropped 13 percent; funding for wildlife and fisheries habitat management is down 17 percent; and research funding is down by more than $36 million. Funding for maintenance and capital improvements has been cut by two-thirds since 2001, as resources shifted to wildfire suppression.

Nothern said there’s a slim chance the bill could be brought up in the September session, but it’s more likely that it won’t get considered until the “lame-duck” session that follows the November election. He’s confident, though, that it will pass. “It’s a question of when,” Nothern said. “We’re out of money again this year. It shows the need to do this.”

Poorer, more urban

A new study commissioned by the Idaho Charter School Network and funded by a grant from the Albertson Foundation projects that Idaho’s school student population will see significant demographic changes in the next five years, becoming increasingly urban, more racially diverse and poorer.

“These trends will present challenges for many districts,” the study finds. “Many rural districts will continue to lose students while more urban districts will struggle to meet growing enrollments.”

The study is aimed in part at identifying where the best opportunities are for charter schools in the state, but Terry Ryan, president of the network, said the data also has implications for education in the state more broadly.

“Idaho is changing, and how it does schooling needs to adapt if the state’s schools are to adjust to the changing needs of its children and families,” he said.

Idaho’s Hispanic student population is projected to be its fastest-growing portion, while the non-Hispanic white student population is projected to decline. Meanwhile, “Idaho is expected to see net growth in lower income households and net declines in households with incomes above $50,000,” the report says.

It also documents the increasing reliance of school districts on voter-approved local tax override levies – an option that’s not available to charter schools. Overall, the report, entitled “Shifting Sands,” concludes that the current state school funding system is “not well aligned with the coming demands of an increasingly urban, more diverse and poorer student population.

Reporter Betsy Z. Russell can be reached at betsyr@spokesman.com or (208) 336-2854.


Click here to comment on this story »






Back to Spokesman Mobile