Liberal pundit Jim Hightower, the former Texas agriculture commissioner who lost that post to then-state Rep. Rick Perry in 1990, doesn’t think much of Perry as governor—including, Hightower says, his budgeting for volunteer firefighters.
Appearing on MSNBC on Sept. 6, 2011, Hightower said Perry’s "own state officials" say wildfires ravaging the state were inevitable due to hot dry, windy conditions and because "Perry, with his Republican supermajority in the Legislature, managed to slash the budget of the volunteer fire departments in our state by 75 percent in the last legislative session."
Hightower shortly added: "People's homes are burning down because of his failure to stand up, not today ... but months ago, and indeed a couple of years ago, to fund our firefighting capability so that we could stand up to this."
Readers brought Hightower’s comment to our attention just as we were reviewing a similar claim by liberal commentator Thom Hartmann, who wrote in a Sept. 7, 2011, blog post on the TruthOut website that Perry "cut his state’s volunteer firefighter program by 75%—reducing funding from $30 million down to $7 million for the critical program to prevent wildfires."
Granted, the wildfires have been widespread, destroying homes and taking lives. But did Perry and the Republican-controlled Legislature knock down funding to volunteer fire departments and did that reduction hamper the response to recent wildfires?
To back up his claim, Hightower’s office pointed us to a Sept. 7, 2011, National Review blog post and a March 23, 2011, news report by Austin’s KVUE-TV, both mentioning legislated cuts to a state fund that helps volunteer fire departments purchase clothing, equipment and training. The cuts took effect Sept. 1, 2011, the start of the new fiscal year.
To learn more, we called the Texas Forest Service, the agency responsible for protecting the state’s forests and related natural resources and preventing and putting out wildfires.
In an interview, Robby DeWitt, who administers financial operations for the service, told us that counting employee benefits, the agency was appropriated $83 million for 2012-13, down from $117.7 million in 2010-11, a 30 percent drop. DeWitt said the forest service did not ask lawmakers to maintain its previous funding, since state leaders, facing a multi-billion-dollar revenue shortfall, had instructed all agencies to tighten belts.
In a handout, though, the forest service notes that it can request additional money to cover its firefighting bills; indeed, the 2011 Legislature approved $121 million to pay the costs of fighting fires earlier this year and in previous years.
"Given the ongoing, severe drought and fire season, TFS will have to request additional funding for fire bills during the next legislative session," the handout says. The next regular session is in 2013, though the governor can call a special session before then.
Among the agency's legislated cuts: A reduction in grants for volunteer fire departments from $23.25 million a year in 2010-11 to $7 million in 2012-13. According to the agency, the grants help provide equipment and training to volunteer fire departments. That money will be prioritized now, the agency says, to cover training, protective equipment and clothing.
As of Aug. 12, 2011, nearly $155 million in grants had been awarded over the years to cover or help cover the cost of training, emergency fire equipment, trucks, tankers, communications systems and computers. Another 24,000 grant requests, seeking nearly $340 million total, were on file.
The cut will have an impact, the handout says, with grants for large equipment put on hold "until funding can be restored (hopefully during the next legislative session)." The remainder of the service’s overall budget reductions "will result in less agency equipment replacements, reductions to operating budgets and" the elimination of any vacant positions, the agency says, while the service "will continue to fight wildland fires and the budget cuts will not hinder our response."
Perry effectively agreed to a 70 percent reduction in grants—not 75 percent—when he signed the state budget into law in June.
Still, we wondered if the budgets of volunteer fire departments were socked as a result.
In an interview, Don Galloway, a forest service policy and planning analyst, said volunteer fire departments operate independently from state government, depending on local funding to cover operating costs. Local departments are the first responders to wildfires, he said, with the state enlisted if necessary; the state requests federal help if that’s needed.
The grants that got whittled did not and do not cover the operating costs of any volunteer fire department, Galloway said.
Finally, we wondered how volunteer fire departments view the grants’ cut.
Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen’s & Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas, whose members include volunteer fire departments, said in an interview that the association was happy lawmakers approved the $7 million a year for the grants at a time huge cuts hit other state-backed entities.
Barron, who is the chief of the Manchaca Volunteer Fire Department, agreed that legislators don’t appropriate money to fund volunteer fire departments, which mostly rely on local sources including donations. He followed up by email, saying there is "not a reliable/constant source of funding for most of the volunteer fire service of Texas."
So, Barron said, the state grants help volunteer fire departments stay afloat by helping them pay for training and equipment that they would be hard-pressed to cover by themselves.
Upshot: Hightower’s statement, suggesting Republican legislators slashed the budgets of fire departments on the front lines of the wildfires, misrepresents the cuts in state grant funding for equipment and training as if they were a direct cut to volunteer fire departments. The state doesn’t fund the operating costs of local departments.
It’s also incorrect to conclude that the cut to the grants’ fund hampered any department’s effort to combat recent wildfires; the reduction just took effect.
Hightower's statement rates False.