Okla. House Ends Contentious Firefighter Funding Feud

March 30, 2006

Without debate, the Oklahoma House passed an $8.9 million firefighter funding bill March 28 but may not have put to rest the political feud over how to replenish rural volunteer fire department budgets and equipment depleted by wildfires.

The House voted 96-0 to send the Republican-supported bill to the Senate, where Democrats said they will not schedule a vote until House Republican leaders agree to add $5 million to a fire equipment repair and replacement fund in subsequent legislation.

“We’re way behind the curve on funding,” said Sen. Jeff Rabon, D-Hugo, who has proposed $7 million to upgrade and repair aging fire protection equipment. The House-passed bill appropriates only $2 million.

On March 27, House Democrats blocked consideration of the GOP bill, calling it “watered down.” Democrats, who have accused House GOP leaders of blocking their efforts to help rural fire departments, supported a $10 million allocation.

“We’re going to work on these differences. I think we’re very close,” Rabon said. Once an agreement is reached, Rabon said the Senate will approve the House-passed measure and send it to Gov. Brad Henry for his signature, allowing emergency firefighting funds to be distributed.

Since Nov. 1, more than 2,800 fires have burned about 560,000 acres in Oklahoma, destroying more than 300 homes and businesses, damaging more than 800 others and killing at least three people. President Bush issued a federal disaster declaration for the state on Jan. 10.

“We are in dire need now,” said Sen. Daisy Lawler, D-Comanche. “There should be no reason why we put this off and play games with it.”

“They don’t have gas money,” Sen. Jim Wilson, D-Tahlequah, said of Oklahoma’s 874 certified volunteer fire departments. “They’ve got broken transmissions. They don’t have any money.”

Rep. Curt Roggow, R-Hillsdale, House author of the firefighter bill, said additional equipment money is part of ongoing budget negotiations.

“Today we took a step in meeting the needs,” Roggow said. “Checks can be cut to those departments that desperately need this funding.”

Roggow lamented that the issue has developed into a political spat.

“It’s a tragedy what’s going on in Oklahoma with the wildfires,” he said. “It’s turned tragedy into politics, and the two don’t mix.”

Among other things, the GOP proposal almost doubles the size of annual operational grants available to fire departments, from about $2,800 to $5,000.

The GOP-controlled House approved the bill after voting on just one of several amendments proposed by Democrats.

The House accepted an amendment by Rep. Mike Brown, D-Fort Gibson, to create a $5,000 death benefit to firefighters who die in the line of duty. On Friday, Chickasha firefighter Destry Horton died from severe burns suffered during a wildfire in Stephens County earlier this month.

Roggow said he does not believe the death benefit can be applied retroactively. But Minority Leader Jari Askins, D-Duncan, said she believes it could apply to Horton.

“I think they can apply it as they wish,” Askins said.

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