OLYMPIA — Determined to create reliable funding to prevent and fight Washington wildfires, the state commissioner of public lands and some Democratic lawmakers are about to make a new push for revenue.
A bill in the spring to hike the insurers’ tax rate for property and casualty premiums failed to gain a floor vote. Now, for the legislative session that begins next month, the idea is to add a surcharge of $5 per year to those premiums.
The money would go toward forest-health projects and programs to help landowners in fire-prone communities, and additional firefighters and fire engines.
It could also buy a modern helicopter to supplement the Vietnam-era UH-1 “Hueys” that Washington gets from federal surplus and rebuilds to save money.
In an interview, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz acknowledged that creating new revenue could be a hard sell in 2020’s 60-day legislative session, where lawmakers won’t draft a brand-new budget.
But, “I believe there is broad support at the public community level and at the legislative level” for dedicated wildfire funding, said Franz, who oversees the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The proposal, which would create an account in the state budget dedicated to wildfire prevention and preparedness, is projected to raise $126 million per two-year budget cycle.
From 2013 to 2018, it cost an average $153 million annually in state and federal money to battle wildland blazes in Washington.
The bill that failed this spring would have hiked the tax paid by insurance companies to 2.52%, up from the existing 2%.
The change to a surcharge on premiums in the current plan is an effort to find common ground with opponents of last year’s proposed tax, according to DNR spokesman Carlo Davis. Among other reasons, the insurance industry opposed the original proposal by contending that a tax hike here could trigger retaliatory taxes for a Washington-based insurer in other states.
Under the new proposal, a family with one home and two cars insured would pay “$15 a year to significantly improve” wildfire response, said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle, who will sponsor the bill in the House.
“I think there’s a good case for everybody in the state to chip in for preventing catastrophes like that in the future,” he said.
In a statement Monday, the NW Insurance Council, which opposed the earlier legislation, said it still had “serious concerns” about the new surcharge proposal.
Among its critiques, the nonprofit group called the approach regressive and said it could still hurt insurance providers with policies in other states. And the group pointed out that the surcharge would hit a wide range of premiums, such as insurance on apartments, boats and farms.
“Investing in forest health and putting out wildfires when they occur is an investment that benefits everyone in our state, by saving public and private lands and protecting public health and safety,” according to the statement. “Yet once again, the proposal from Olympia exclusively targets insurance policyholders to pay for it.”
Since the back-to-back, record-breaking fire seasons of 2014 and 2015, improving Washington’s response to wildfires has been a regular conversation in Olympia. Those fires scorched nearly 2,340 square miles, destroyed hundreds of homes and led to the deaths of three firefighters.
While fires have traditionally been considered a problem for Eastern Washington, almost 40% of fires over the past two years were sparked west of the Cascade Mountains, according to DNR.
With climate change forecast to increase summer temperatures in the Pacific Northwest, Western Washington is likely to see more and larger fires in the coming decades.
In January, Franz laid out a 10-year strategic plan to combat wildfires. But, “A plan is only so good as the investment made to implement them,” she said.