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Gov. Kate Brown Announces Vetoes To Help Fund Wildfire Response

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has faced five recall petitions in the last two years, as politics in the state and nation have grown more polarized. All  failed.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has faced five recall petitions in the last two years, as politics in the state and nation have grown more polarized. All failed.

With the vetoes, Brown will block more than $18 million in planned cuts to state agencies. She'll also snatch back $100 million legislators had earmarked for emergency spending on the pandemic.

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.

It was unclear Monday whether Brown would face pushback from lawmakers, who can override vetoes with a two-thirds vote in each chamber. Legislative leaders and top budget writers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“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 $18 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 save a state account dedicated to housing low-income fire evacuees, among other things.

All told, the governor’s office said the moves would preserve $65 million, bolstering the amount currently expected to be left over at the end of the current two-year budget. Those assumptions could crumble next week, when state economists are scheduled to deliver an updated budget forecast.

Brown also is sending 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.”

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.