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The Verde Independent | Cottonwood, Arizona

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4/1/2014 2:16:00 PM
Hotshot dollars debated in legislative budget process

Joanna Dodder Nellans
The Daily Courier

Bills related to last year's tragic deaths of Prescott's 19 Hotshots are hanging in the balance during ongoing legislative budget wrangling.

A $5 million, five-year appropriation that would help the City of Prescott was in the budget that the House approved, but not the Senate's, said Rep. Karen Fann, R-Prescott. Negotiations between the houses continue this week.

The $5 million would basically cover the city's estimated pension costs for the families of the six Hotshots who were full-time employees.

"These guys were fighting fire on state land, which is why we went to the Legislature" for financial help, Fann said. The Yarnell Hill wildfire that killed the crew members June 30 was located on state trust lands near Yarnell, about 30 miles south of Prescott.

A state-organized team called for help on the Yarnell Hill wildfire from a variety of jurisdictions including the city's Granite Mountain Hotshots, who often were paid to fight fires in other jurisdictions as a national resource.

Rep. Andy Tobin carried House Bill 2693 that originally sought the $5 million appropriation.

Rep. Fann is carrying HB 2624 that seeks $500,000 for a memorial at the site where the Hotshots died. It also creates a committee to design the memorial.

That half-million is now in both the House and Senate versions of the budget, Fann said.

More than a half-dozen bills to increase the state forester's budget were wrapped into one bill that relayed requests from the governor and forester, Sen. Steve Pierce of Prescott said. He and the other legislators agreed to strike-everything language to House Bill 2343, carried by Rep. Brenda Barton, R-Payson.

Pierce had sponsored one of the other forestry bills, Senate Bill 1268, which sought $7 million for a Natural Resource Protection and Preservation Fund to reduce wildfire danger on state trust lands by clearing overgrown vegetation.

Barton's bill also seeks to reduce overgrown vegetation on trust lands. But no money to reduce fire danger on trust lands was included in either the House or Senate version of the state's budget, Pierce said.

"I think it's wrong," he said.

He's also upset that something was added to the Barton striker bill that wasn't part of the negotiations between legislators and the governor's office.

That addition seeks to give the state immunity from any liability for negligence in wildfires, protecting the state from lawsuits.

"I was surprised to see that," Pierce said, adding that he believes it is unconstitutional.

If the state did anything wrong, it should pay the consequences, he said.

More than 100 Hotshot family members and Yarnell residents have filed notices of claims against the state to preserve their rights to lawsuits stemming from the Yarnell Hill wildfire. The fire destroyed an estimated 122 homes in Yarnell on June 30.

The claims also were filed against the City of Prescott, Yavapai County and/or Yarnell Fire District. The deadline to file lawsuits is one year after the Hotshots' deaths.

Follow Joanna Dodder on Twitter @joannadodder

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Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, April 3, 2014
Article comment by: Rep. Brenda Barton

I am the Prime Sponsor (author) of the original HB2343, an appropriations bill requesting $20m for clearing the understory and brush on state lands.

Because the bill was seeking money, members of the Appropriations Committee would not allow it to pass *unless* all but $1m was stripped out.

That was very difficult for me because I am acutely aware of the desperate need for forest thinning.

To keep HB2343 alive I had to allow $19m to be stripped by Representatives who all live in the Valley. But sometimes you just have to keep possession and keep moving the ball.

I did not attempt to amend the budget to add funds to the bill for two reasons I knew any proposals would be voted down and put the bill in jeopardy, and I wished the bill to be signed not vetoed. I had received input that such amounts of spending not in the favored budget items ran the strong risk of a veto.

At this point, HB2343 is poised to pass and be signed with its $1m allocation. And I'm looking forward to next year with new players on the bench and other political changes.

Sen. Pierce was terrific in playing his zone in the Senate.

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