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Idaho Legislature’s budget committee talks fire funding, kindergarten and labor woes

By Clark Corbin Idaho Capital Sun

From now on when Idaho Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy looks at wildfire suppression budget proposals, she won’t ever again just see numbers or charts on a spreadsheet.

Instead, she’ll see the faces of the firefighters and the equipment they rely on.

Troy, R-Genesse, will see her family members standing with their arms wrapped around each other watching the Bedrock Fire roar up a canyon and scorch the land that her family and neighbors have worked for years.

For four days this summer, Troy and her family watched the fire devastate their farmland, pasture and timber lands.

She said 200 of her acres burned and all of her timber was 100% lost.

But, thanks to good communication of hardworking neighbors, a strong volunteer Evergreen Fire District in the area and the response from an Idaho Department of Lands team, Troy said firefighters got the fire contained without any loss of human life.

All told, the fire burned more than 11,000 acres in Nez Perce County.

“It was just a really different experience from reading about it and looking at numbers to standing on the sideline and watching it burn,” Troy said in an interview Thursday. “Watching them do back burns, watching them bring in contract workers to help wrap up the fire, watching the transition between the state fire team and — it became a high priority from the feds — watching that transition how they handed it off. How professional everyone was, how caring they were, how concerned they were about one of our neighbors who was down in the canyon still trying to fight the fire. They had contingency plans to try to cover him with water if it got that bad because it moved really fast.”

Although they lost a lot, Troy was proud to see her daughter, her ex-husband and neighbors band together and head out on tractors to disc up the farm ground around the fire’s perimeter to help protect their property, like they planned in advance.

“In one of the pictures with my daughter with her arm around her dad, that kind of captures how we felt about the loss of this property,” Troy said. “We have worked very hard to manage it responsibly for the future generations and it was really hard to see it go up in smoke so fast. There is so much grief on one hand for me, but then pride in how the Department of Lands responded and how hard everybody worked to try and put it out.”

The experience also opened Troy’s eyes to other realities of wildfire, including the death of wildlife trapped in the canyon, the damage to a valuable salmon tributary of the Clearwater River to the communications challenges between different county, state and federal agencies.

Idaho Department of Lands had one of many budget presentations before JFAC last week

Troy’s story is just one of many chapters from a long and difficult fire season that state and federal fire officials warned the public about due to extreme heat and drought conditions.

During Idaho Department of Lands budget presentations before the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this week, Troy got a chance to thank some of the fire officials who helped protect her, her family and neighbors from the Bedrock Fire.

“They had our back this year,” Troy said. “What a great team you have. While it was disconcerting to be on the receiving end of a forest fire and watch 200 acres of my own timber ground burn up, but it was a great opportunity to see your team in action, see how you care about the landowners, how you care about the land, how you care about the safety of everyone including one of my neighbors who wouldn’t get out of the canyon with his cat and how you tried to protect his life while he was down there.”

For the year ahead, Idaho Department of Lands officials are asking for a 28% increase in state general fund spending. The money would go toward paying for eight new engine bosses, three new fire management officers, opening a new Clearwater Fire District in eastern Idaho, buying fire and drone equipment and increasing seasonal firefighter pay to $15 per hour to match what the federal government pays.

Idaho Department of Lands Director Dustin Miller said the budget request is based on the STARFire Analysis of wildfire risk and a budget analysis for the state.

In the end, Miller said the increases are needed to modernize the department’s wildfire program and be better prepared to respond to larger and more frequent fires that officials are bracing for.

“We are good at this, and our firefighters pride themselves on aggressively but safely going after these fires and keeping them small, but a year like this year caused fires to get big and with resources stretched thin, many of these fires went unstaffed for longer periods of time,” Miller told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

This year, Miller said the department dealt with what he described as “a severe shortage of hand crews, engines, logistical support and overhead personnel to staff our numerous wildfires.”

With resources thin, Miller and the department put out a call for all available fireline-qualified Idaho Department of Lands personnel to assist in any way they could with wildfires.

The staff coordinating fire suppression efforts for the department formed their own sort of ad-hoc Idaho Department of Lands Type 3 team led by Deputy Fire Bureau Chief Julia Sullens to manage the Bedrock Fire that threatened Troy, her family and neighbors’ property. They had to do it because no other incident management teams were available in the country, Miller said.

Nevertheless, the small team working with few resources contained the fire, Miller said.

During this week’s JFAC hearing, a couple of legislators asked Miller whether the budget increase they sought was simply a response to an abnormal fire year.

Miller said fire officials expect a greater risk for more severe fires to become more frequent in the West going forward, which will threaten private property and the safety of the public.

“What we are trying to do here is adapt to changing conditions on the ground, more people moving into Idaho, building out into the wildland-urban interface, a higher likelihood of more human starts, unplanned ignitions happening out there, which we need to respond and do our best to get them out,” Miller said. “What we are trying to do is respond to what we have seen over time, and what we are predicting and what the experts are predicting will be sort of the new normal moving forward.”

JFAC didn’t make any decisions or recommendations about the Idaho Department of Lands fire budget request last week.

JFAC will hold budget hearings and then write the budget after the 2022 legislative session begins in January. After that, the budget bills will go to the full Idaho House of Representatives and Idaho Senate for a vote.

“Those numbers, those eight fire chiefs, they are asking for eight new fire chiefs, what does a fire chief do? I saw what Julia did,” Troy said. “The incident teams, how they bring in outside resources to fight. It makes it so real. It also helped me understand that there are things that we could do better.”

All-day kindergarten funding proposal to go before the Idaho Legislature

The Department of Lands’ fire budget was only one of the topics considered during three days of JFAC hearings this week at the Idaho Capitol.

Legislators on the committee also poured through the state budget and revenue picture in detail beginning Tuesday.

On the education front, state officials are gearing up to bring a proposal forward to launch optional state-funded all-day kindergarten across Idaho.

Currently, Idaho offers half-day kindergarten, which is also optional.

All day kindergarten would be a big educational policy advancement in a conservative legislative body where many conservative Republicans say the family is best left in charge of early education. Historically, some legislators have also suggested expanding kindergarten could come at the expense of the rest of the public education system.

Nevertheless, momentum has been building. The State Board of Education endorsed all-day kindergarten in June, Idaho Education News reported.

Gov. Brad Little has made K-3 reading a top priority of his first term in office.

Now, the Idaho State Board of Education is requesting about $39.2 million in the 2023 budget to launch all-day kindergarten. Over the past five years, Idaho has had about 21,000 students attend kindergarten each year, state budget officials said this week.

For all-day kindergarten to move forward, legislators would need to pass a policy bill to implement it and approve budget bills to pay for it.

Moving forward, people interested in developments on the kindergarten proposal can watch to see whether Little makes a call for all-day kindergarten in his Jan. 10 State of the State address and how JFAC members react when they conduct the public school budget hearing during the first half of the session. 

State agencies face increased competition for workers as private employers’ wages rise 

Legislators on JFAC also reviewed state employment reports and proposals for increasing pay for state employees.

While wages for state employees have historically lagged behind the private sector, there are even more challenges state agencies face this year, Division of Human Resources Administrator Lori Wolff said Thursday.

Housing costs are up dramatically as Idaho experiences the pains of being the second-fastest growing state in the country over the past 10 years, according to the 2020 census.

Job postings outnumber the number of job seekers across Idaho.

Telework options means many people can work anywhere. More people value more flexibility in their jobs — flexibility that doesn’t often align with a traditional 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. state government job.

On top of that, throw in recent wage increases by many private employers with a foothold in Idaho, and hiring and retaining talented state employees become a challenge.

For instance, Wolff said, some McDonald’s offers start at $15 per hour, while Amazon offers $20-$24 per hour, plus a signing bonus.

It’s hard for the state to retain a liquor store clerk on an average salary of $12.31 an hour or a state customer services representative at $15 per hour if they can make $16 an hour at Walmart and receive tuition reimbursement, Wolff said.

“We have new competition we haven’t had to compete with in the past,” Wolff told JFAC.

The Legislature has invested in pay. For the 2022 budget, state employees got a 2% pay increase for the year, plus the 2% pay increase that was frozen in 2021, for an average raise of $1.14 per employee, Wolff said.

Knowing they can’t match private salaries, Wolff said state agencies want to focus on hiring agency leadership that creates a positive work culture, providing good benefits and providing regular employee compensation increases to avoid falling further behind.

The state of Idaho is the state’s largest employer and has about 24,858 employees. About 8,000 of them work in higher education at Idaho universities.

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