Government Agencies and Lawmakers Butting Heads Over 2018 Fire Budget
A long-standing tug of war has existed between government agencies and the lawmakers sworn to act in the best interest of the people. Congress represents the people of the United States. Members serve their constituents, the people who live in the district from which they are elected. Lawmakers must please their constituents if they want to stay in office, and every issue must therefore be considered from the perspectives of those constituents. Government agencies for the most part are insulated from their constituents in that they serve them but are not subject to ouster if the public at large does not agree with their decisions. Designed to work in unison, the government agencies compete for public dollars to help serve the public, while lawmakers pass legislation that sets the budget to effectively carry out the missions of these agencies. As the wallets of federal, state, and local governments have tightened this year, the agencies who are slated to receive limited funding to carry out their missions start to vocally and procedurally push back against lawmakers.
The situation of cutting already promised funding to government agencies is playing out right now in the 2017 legislative session between Congress and the Executive branch. The President asked Congress to cut federal agency spending by $11 billion to the fiscal 2018 appropriations to help offset the costs of emergency disaster relief in the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria as well as the devastating wildfires in California. Requests like these made by the President mean that budget allocations will change and some agencies will be forced to operate without the funding to support new challenges they may face.
The President’s declaration of a state of emergency during the devastating California wildfires certainly helped the state’s agencies receive extra funding; however, some officials cite that allocations should have come before the death and destruction occurred. Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said in November 2017 that the federal budget dysfunction indirectly affects the state’s ability to combat the blazes. “If they don’t have adequate federal funding to ensure the wildland fire program is fully supported, we don’t have the ability to reach out to them to get mutual aid and assistance at the same capacity.” It was clear that prior to the executive order by the President to grant the $11B there were and will continue to be budget shortfalls. This was evident in the early hours of November 17, 2017 when officials in Napa and Sonoma counties called on California’s mutual aid system for support as the most destructive fires in history were threatening to consume their communities. Commanders in both counties reported a shortfall of 175 engines against what they requested from the mutual aid system. This left firefighters with just 40% of their initial request for resources to fight the blazes threatening life and property. Officials in Mendocino County were not as lucky. In the fires that took the lives of nine people, 0 of the 15 requested engines were delivered at the height of the destruction. Staffing shortfalls and inadequate fire support arose despite the approved legislation adding $25 million to the Office of Emergency Services’ budget to help pay local departments for additional staffing during times of high fire risk. “The system still needs more funding” said Lou Paulson, president of the California Professional Firefighters, which represents thousands of firefighters in the state. These shortfalls illustrate the shortcomings of both sides and emphasize the need to have policy makers and the agencies that are tasked with the execution to work together.
The disparity between lawmakers and government agencies is not relegated to the debate regarding fighting fires or pensions. As the President and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called for sweeping reforms to the Department of the Interior, the current budget faced challenges to operate as normal. In late October of 2017, the National Park Service released a notice that they are considering a steep increase in entrance fees at 17 of its most popular parks, mostly in the American west, to address a backlog of maintenance and infrastructure projects not included in the current budget. Attorneys General from Califorinia, Arizona, Maine, and several other states quickly expressed their concern with the dramatic fee increase and cited the lack of justification as well as the impact to visitors. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra went on record to say “Our goal as a nation should be to make our national parks supremely inviting and encourage more families to visit them. Instead, the Trump Administration proposes the complete opposite – making our treasured lands less accessible to many Americans.” The question with the rate hikes is has the NPS considered the financial impacts on the communities surrounding the park? This is where the agency and law making opinion differs considerably. Unfortunately, those that suffer the most will be those who live closest to the parks, not those in Washington D.C. or in the state capital buildings.
+ Cadei , Emily. “Will Wine Country Disaster Push Congress to Fix Fire Budget?” Sacbee, 12 Oct. 2017, www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/fires/article178379691.html.
+ PALOMINO, JOAQUIN, and KIMBERLY VEKLEROV. “CA Officials Say Mutual Aid Requests for Wildfires Were Not Filled.” Firehouse, 18 Nov. 2017, www.firehouse.com/news/12382127/napa-santa-rosa-officials-say-mutual-aid-resources-didnt-make-it-to-wildfires-firefighter-news.