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Burning through money

November 18, 2008

As fires continued to engulf homes and threaten more Los Angeles and Orange County neighborhoods over the weekend, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Californians shouldn't worry, for now, about the $11 billion that the state has to find in taxes or program cuts in the current fiscal year. Despite the almost incomprehensible budget problem, he said, California won't have to skimp on fighting fires because of a $1.7-billion reserve built into the budget for exactly this kind of emergency. That's enough to keep the water-dropping aircraft flying and the firefighters on the front lines fully equipped.

The "extra" cushion of $1.7 billion is reassuring, but only up to a point. That fund is needed for all kinds of contingencies, and as this year's fires burn through acreage, they are burning almost as quickly through the fund. State fire suppression costs since July 1 already reached $304 million by the end of September, well before the most recent and destructive Sylmar, Freeway Complex and Montecito fires. Compare that with the $206-million cost for the entire year of 2006-07.

Schwarzenegger built this year's reserve on cuts from the general fund. Each of those cuts hurt, depriving seniors, for example, of their full share of renters' assistance and keeping counties from being able to test water quality at beaches. The state now faces deeper and more fundamental cuts. They can be avoided only by raising taxes -- or by leaving the state unprepared for an earthquake, terrorist attack or more fires. The fast-moving blazes that began during the weekend and are still burning should remind lawmakers, now meeting in special session, that they can not simply shrug their shoulders and hope that things work themselves out. Disaster won't wait for the state's fiscal situation to improve.

Deadlock on the budget last year helped divert attention from a Schwarzenegger proposal to fund emergency response with assessments on homeowners through their insurance policies. The plan needed some work, and the governor and some lawmakers were giving it their attention. But with the time-frittering nonnegotiations about whether to tax or cut, the work didn't get done.

California will have more fires. Development continues in fire-prone wilderness areas, and prolonged drought keeps much of the state tinder dry. There have been on average just under 6,000 fires each year in areas served by Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency, but this year there already have been 9,600. The state has to respond with better fire codes and a just way to spread the financial costs. But more than anything, it needs to get its fiscal house in order.

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