Fires Burn A New $236 Million Hole In Budget

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From the "It Only Seems To Get Worse Department"... budget advisers to Governor Schwarzenegger say the cost of fighting wildfires since July now totals almost $305 million. That's about $235.8 million more than was set aside in the budget Schwarzenegger signed into law less than two months ago.

The firefighting pricetag is current as of this past weekend, and reflects not just the struggle to contain the still burning blazes... but of the state to adequately set aside money for disasters.

The official 2008-2009 budget included just $69 million for emergency fire suppression. And it seems safe to assume that just about everyone knew that wouldn't be enough, given this past summer's wildfires.

And now, for some particularly troubling context: state government spent $518.4 million on firefighting in the 2007-2008 fiscal year. That dwarfed the costs in any recent year... and yet, we've already spent more than half that amount in just the first five months of this fiscal year.

While gubernatorial advisers won't say so, it may be fair to tack the $236 million in unbudgeted firefighting costs to the already large revenue gap announced this month of $11.2 billion... thus making the problem inch ever closer to $11.5 billion. (Some in the Capitol will no doubt quibble with this fast math, arguing that it mixes a lack of revenues with an excess of expenses... others will proclaim that's a distinction without a difference.)

Schwarzenegger budget spokesman H.D. Palmer says the governor's line-item vetoes when signing the budget... totaling around $510 million in the general fund... were made with an eye toward socking away cash for just these kinds of expenses. That, of course, was before the bottom dropped out of the revenue forecasts in that budget.

You may remember Schwarzenegger pushed for a new fee in this past year's budget debate to help fight fires... a fee hike that died in the Legislature. The governor has said he intends to re-introduce the proposal in January.

Last month, when responding to a question about then-burning fires (which are part of the $305 million pricetag), the guv said the following:

"We need to raise the insurance fees, the homeowner insurance fees, by a certain extent. And, of course, there are going to be debates, is it a tax? It doesn't matter what it is. Let's increase it, let's create the extra revenues and keep people safe. Public safety is the most important thing."

update: Schwarzenegger budget guru Palmer says the cost of SoCal firefighting since just last Wednesday is now near $11.1 million... that's part of the bigger numbers mentioned above.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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