Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

Fire Season Could Push State Budget to the Limit


Several wildfires continue to burn across California. We're joined on Morning Edition by non-partisan Sacramento Political Consultant Leo McElroy.

— Several wildfires continue to burn across California costing the state money and resources it may not have. We're joined on Morning Edition by non-partisan Sacramento Political Consultant Leo McElroy. The governor declared a state of emergency, Leo, in four counties, says we have about $500 million in emergency funds to fight these fires. How far do you think that money will go considering the state's finances?

LEO MCELROY: Well, it really depends on what the fire season does. Right now this is not anywhere near the worst in California history. We've had really disastrous years and this is not one of them, but it could yet be because the two months coming are potentially the worst months for fire season. The figures we saw yesterday at the Capitol indicate that, while there is a reserve set aside to get us through fire season, about half of that reserve is already used up with these fires. So, a disastrous year could still throw us into a lot of problems, and there are already forecasts that local fire departments who carry a lot of load on these - these are all multiple response fires - that local departments could really be in a lot of financial trouble trying to carry up their end of the mutual aid contract.

ALAN RAY: It's a really difficult situation, because you say the worst of the fire season is still the next couple of months. Could a really bad fire season push the budget completely out of balance again?

MCELROY: Absolutely. Absolutely, it could and it could leave us with situations such as we've seen in the past where, for instance, the contractors who service the firefighting airplanes that are so important in rugged terrain such as they're facing north of Los Angeles right now. That those contractors could say if you're not going to pay the bills, we're not going to service the airplanes, and the airplanes come out of service. And suddenly, the one tool you really need to fight rugged terrain fires is gone.

DWANE BROWN: Well, the state assembly, after more than a week, finally passed legislation, Leo, to reduce the overcrowded prison population here. How does this scaled down version differ from what the senate approved?

MCELROY: Well, A) it differs in size considerably. There's a gap depending on whose figures you accept of either $600 million, at the worse side, or about $240 million on the good side. Either way, it's a substantial gap from what the senate approved, and the senate is saying it's not going to act on it until the assembly gets busy and does the rest of the job. The assembly plan, which was scaled down to avoid harming the political future of a number of members who want to run for higher office and don't want to be accused of being soft on crime, would not set up a sentencing commission to re-evaluate the way we sentence. It would not scale down a number of sentences that presently go automatically to felonies. Those are all measures that would save the state a lot of money, but can be interpreted as soft on crime. So, you've got lawmakers who will just say, I don't want to run with someone who was soft on crime, I won't vote for them.

RAY: Okay, all right. The governor really doesn't have much weight with Republicans. Where does he stand in all this?

MCELROY: Um, on the sidelines, cheering for the senate, because it's about all he has in the way of pressure. He has no present political clout with the assembly, and there are people wondering whether the assembly leadership has much political clout. The Republicans, of course, are standing on the sidelines voting no on everything. And able to maintain their consistency, telling the Democrats that you have a majority, you can do it on a majority vote, if you want to vote for this fine, and then we'll beat you in the next election because we'll say you're soft on criminals. It's a messy situation, and it's a legislature that may desperately be in need of a spinal transplant.

RAY: That's non-partisan Sacramento political consultant Leo McElroy.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.