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Texplainer: Can Texas Use the Rainy Day Fund to Fight Wildfires?

Pastor Mike Vega and Debbie Begs survey their fire ravaged church off US 21 in Bastrop.
Photo by Jeff Heimsath for KUT News
Pastor Mike Vega and Debbie Begs survey their fire ravaged church off US 21 in Bastrop.

Hey Texplainer: Why doesn’t Rick Perry use money from the state's Rainy Day Fund to help fight the wildfires and assist folks who have lost their homes?

Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Perry lead the fight to prevent the state's Rainy Day Fund from being used to help fill the state's enormous budget shortfall for the 2012-2013 biennium. After an earthquake and resulting tsunami devastated parts of Japan on March 11, Perry cited it as an example of the kind of unexpected catastrophe that could hit Texas — and a reason not to tap the state's giant savings account.

“One of the things that I remind people, in why it is so important to protect that [fund] is … it is our insurance policy against a major natural disaster,” Perry said March 14.

But the Rainy Day Fund can’t actually be used in that capacity unless agreed upon in the Texas Legislature by a two-thirds majority of the state House and Senate during a legislative session. The 82nd Legislature ended its regular session on May 31; a special session concluded at the end of June.

Money comes from both the state and federal government to cover the cost of fighting wildfires and other disasters. Since there is no way to forecast when such a disaster will occur or how much it will cost, the state will reimburse the agencies, such as the Texas Forest Service, in the form of a supplemental fund to be determined during the next legislative session in 2013. That money can come from a variety of resources including the Disaster Contingency Fund, which has about $49 million remaining, or the Rainy Day Fund, which is expected to have $6.4 billion in it by August 2013.

There are other ways to get money when the Legislature isn’t in session such as transferring funds within the state budget from one agency to another. But Dick Lavine, senior fiscal analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said there’s hardly a surplus in the state budget after the 82nd Legislature to do that. 

On Sept. 9, the White House granted a limited disaster declaration in response to a formal request made by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. The partial request provides individual assistance from Federal Emergency Management Agency for those who lost homes or property as a result of the Labor Day fires in Bastrop County. A previous declaration request for the fires beginning March 1 has not been accepted.

Since January, wildfires have scorched more than 3.6 million acres of land. Insurance Council of Texas estimates place the damage for Labor Day weekend alone to exceed the 2009 cost in insured losses of $115 million.

Bottom line: The Rainy Day Fund is not to be used as an emergency fund; therefore, money can only be taken out when the 83rd Legislature convenes in January 2013.

Claire Cardona works for our political reporting partner, the Texas Tribune.
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