Perry's budget cuts worsen disastorous wildfires

United States, Strawn: Federal firefighter Jesus Palencia sets a back fire while fighting a running wildfire on April 19, 2011 in Strawn, Texas. Dozens of area homes have been destroyed in the wildfires that have been fueled by dry conditions, high winds, and low humidity. (AFP Photo / Tom Pennington)
“Everything’s bigger in Texas” does not apply to the fire department. The toll of the 2011 Texas wildfires has accounted for at least two dead and 1,000 homes destroyed, a magnitude of which Governor Rick Perry told the AP was “pretty stunning.”

Only earlier this year, however, the presidential hopeful approved a cut that decreased fire department funding by 75 percent.

Under his rule as governor, the state of Texas announced earlier in 2011 that they were planning on slashing funding for the volunteer fire department from $30 million down to $7 million. Of the barely 1,000 fire departments serving the second-largest state in the country, 879 are fully staffed by volunteer emergency crew members.

Gov Perry has cut a presidential campaign trip short in order to return to Texas to deal with the blaze, but his interest in the emergency service wasn’t quite the same earlier this year. Back in May, Forest Service Director Tom Boggus told Reuters that volunteer programs were the number one defense for wild fires. Despite this, the Texas Forest Service, which dishes out state funding to the volunteer units across Texas, is expected to see $34 million in cuts over the next two years.

Only four months later, now Boggus has told the morning program Early Show these fires are “historic.”

“We've never seen fire seasons like this. We've never seen drought like this. This is an historic time that we're living in, and so people know and understand they've got to be extremely careful," adds Boggus to the CBS morning show.

Citing a two-year budget cycle shortfall of around $27 billion for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, however, lawmakers down south have been taking an axe to the budget all year.

The Forest Service aids volunteer units across Texas with state assistance grants, but the entire department is expecting to see drastic cutbacks. The Forest Service was only appropriated $117 million for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, which Salon reports is not even enough to fight the current fires. Under new Perry-approved spending, the Forest Service is being allowed only $83 million starting this month. That decrease in funding will mostly greatly impact the state’s volunteer units, who depend on the Forest Service for funding. Reports earlier this year estimated that those divisions could expect cutbacks in upwards of 80 percent.

"We understand the difficulty they have had in dealing with almost unprecedented numbers of fires this year," Talmadge Heflin, director of the Center for Fiscal Policy at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, told Reuters in May. "We also understand that in order to balance the budget, everybody needs to endure some reductions."

Speaking on MSNBC this week, radio host Jim Hightower lashed out at Perry for allowing the cuts, exclaiming, “People’s homes are burning down because of his failure.”

Heflin has referred Reuters to the discretionary funds that the governor’s office can dish out for emergencies. Perry has only attacked the federal government in the meantime, however, for failing to properly assist with the wildfire outbreak.

“I am dismayed that this administration has denied Texans the much needed assistance they deserve,” Perry barked at the feds in a statement earlier this month. “It is not only the obligation of the federal government, but its responsibility under law to help its citizens in times of emergency.”

In response, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) under President Obama reminded Perry and his party that they have offered over two dozen kinds of federal assistance in 2011 to deal with the fires, including 19 grants in the month of April alone.

“Based on the information the state provided to FEMA through this process, it was determined that there was not a need for additional support at this time as the federal assistance is already being provided to Texas for response activities in the form of the Fire Management Assistance Grants,” FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said in a statement.

Perry was on the fence about participating in this evening’s GOP debate in lieu of the emergency in his state, but earlier Wednesday boarded a plane and left behind Texas — and thousands of scorched acres of land — to fly to California to speak alongside Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman.