Rick Perry's Budget Leaves Texans In Bind Amidst Historic Wildfires
WASHINGTON -- As wildfires engulfed her Bastrop County, Texas, neighborhood on Sunday, Betty Dunkerley was forced to evacuate her home for safer ground. There were few options for shelter, she said. Only a middle school and a Catholic church had been opened up to evacuees, and the middle school were already crowded.
While seeking shelter, Dunkerley saw others who had been displaced -- families with nowhere to go and no support system in place to assist them. Some slept in parking lots, with kids sleeping in sleeping bags in truck beds alongside the family dog.
"A lot of people were trying to camp out," Dunkerley, a former Austin City Council member, told The Huffington Post.
The wildfires threatening Dunkerley and her neighbors are being met by an inadequately funded response team. Back in May, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) signed a budget presented by the state legislature that cut funding for the state agency in charge of combating such blazes.
The Texas Forest Service's funding was sliced from $117.7 million to $83 million. More devastating cuts hit the assistance grants to volunteer fire departments around the state. Those grants were slashed 55 percent from $30 million per year in 2010 and 2011 to $13.5 million per year in 2012 and 2013. Those cuts are effective now.
As of Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle reported that wildfires had consumed more than 33,000 acres in Bastrop County, clearing out 20 neighborhoods and claiming two lives. Fires had also sprung up in several counties outside of Houston, burning at least 7,000 acres. Aerial photos from the Bastrop blaze showed a huge smoke plume had drifted over Austin.
Dunkerley was lucky. She had a key to her church and was able to set up camp there. Her house was not among the 800 or so turned to ash. It had survived. But, she was told, her neighborhood had not. It looked like a "war zone."
Dunkerley had managed to flee with her three cats, a dress she planned to wear for an upcoming family wedding and little else. She said she doesn't know when she will be allowed back into her home.
"In hindsight, we should have all had a better plan on a personal level and a governmental level," she said. "All over central Texas you can have this repeated," she added. "Everything is a tinderbox."
Texas is currently facing its worst single-year drought on record, with agricultural losses topping $5 billion. Similar drought conditions and water rationing caused deadly fires that raged two years ago. Despite that history, Texas's governor and state lawmakers failed to make any allowances for wildfires this year.
Perry, who is now the frontrunner in the GOP presidential primary, returned home from the campaign trail to address the fires on Monday, the day after Dunkerley had been evacuated.
"I think our local state senator has been very visible," Dunkerley said. "Our county judge and our mayor in Bastrop have been very visible." She added that once Perry returned to Texas, "some of our state resources were showing up a little faster."
But the consequences of the cuts to firefighting funding remain evident.
"We were outvoted -- what can I say?" said Texas state Sen. Mario Gallegos (D), who voted against the state budget. "Obviously this money is needed for natural disasters like the ones we have right now."
"We do have a rainy day fund, and I would hope that the governor goes into the rainy day fund," he added. "But we have to also be responsible here locally, and cutting the Forest Service budget significantly was not being responsible."
Gallegos, who worked for 22 years in the Houston fire department, noted that outside major cities like Houston and Dallas, volunteer firefighters are the backbone of the Texas firefighting force.
"Out in the suburbs and in the woods, we have to count on our volunteers," he told HuffPost.
Analiese Kornely, executive director of the Perry watchdog group Back to Basics PAC, said that the governor had the money to fund volunteer fire department programs.
"[Budget writers] did actually have the $60 million needed to fund the program at 2010-2011 levels but did not use it," she said in an email. Instead, the volunteers took the 55 percent cut.
In Texas, volunteer firefighting programs receive state money through tax revenues set aside in a dedicated fund.
"We're all paying this money to a dedicated fund," said Jim Dunnam, a former state representative and current fellow at the Texas First Foundation. "And they're not spending the money because they need that money to offset their spending elsewhere." State officials, he said, "are telling people, 'You need to pay taxes for fire prevention,' and then [they] don't spend it. It's crazy."
Instead, the funds are left in a general account. "It is one of the gimmicks they used to balance the budget in Texas," Dunnam said. "[Perry's] good at flying back to Texas for a photo op," he added, "but over his tenure as governor, we've just had chronic neglect of basic things to allow Texas to move forward."
Robert Ryland, a democratic precinct chair in Elgin, a town located 18 miles north of Bastrop, called the decision to cut volunteer firefighter funds "horrible." He noted the area had endured wild fires in recent years, and drought conditions were already a big problem when the cuts came down.
"You're literally playing with fire," Ryland told HuffPost. "When you are talking about essential public services, those things to tend to be a third rail even in Texas. This is the first time in my memory that I've ever seen funding for that kind of thing tossed around or used as an accounting trick to keep their numbers where they wanted them, where Perry wanted them to be."
Bastrop has a small fire department, Ryland said, and the surrounding towns had volunteer forces. "These are truly volunteers, with other jobs and families," he explained. "Just having that available in small communities is a life line for a lot of folks. This is not something you should mess with."
It's not just the funding, but Perry himself who has been MIA during the wildfires, Ryland said. "He basically came down here and told us FEMA would be here on Wednesday," he said, "and then he took off."
Eva DeLuna, a budget analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, told HuffPost the Texas state legislature almost always deals with natural disasters after the fact.
"We tend not to do prevention because we're the lowest-spending state in the country," DeLuna said. "We tend to deal with things once it’s an emergency." She cited creating firebreaks as one preventative measure fire departments could take if they had the resources.
"We know what we should do, but we just don't have the money to deal with it," she said, adding, "well we do -- we just don’t want to collect it in taxes.”
In an email to HuffPost, Texas state Sen. Kirk Watson (D) scolded his fellow lawmakers for failing to prepare for the wildfires.
"It would be refreshing to see those in control -- of the Capitol and of the budgeting process -- express as much concern about preventing these tragedies before they take place as they do after land, property and possessions of Texans are lost," he wrote.
"During the session, budget decisions are presented as little more than math problems," Watson continued. "They're presented as raw numbers, and the discussion ends as soon as those numbers balance -- or even just appear to balance, by any means necessary. Events such as these fires show these kinds of debates aren't just about numbers. They're about specific impacts on very real people and their lives."
Perry has berated the Obama administration for not approving quickly enough a request he put in to FEMA for federal funds to assist firefighting efforts in Texas.
"You see hundreds of thousands of acres of Texas burning and you know that there will soon be emergency declarations, and we did that now a couple of weeks ago, but still no response from this administration," he told local news radio station WOAI in an April interview. "There is a point in time where you say, hey, what's going on here," Perry added. "You have to ask why are you taking care of Alabama and other states? I know our letter didn't get lost in the mail."
But after complaining to the feds and conducting a statewide prayer for rain earlier this year, Perry appears to have shifted his focus to the 2012 election.
Recent polls showed Perry surging ahead of Mitt Romney and the rest of the GOP 2012 pack, with 29 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents listing him as their first choice for the Republican nomination. His closest competitor, Romney, landed just 17 percent of respondents.
People in Texas, however, are not as convinced by Perry's performance. A survey conducted by Public Policy Polling found Perry trailing Obama 45 percent to 47 percent in Texas, which hasn't voted for a Democratic president since 1976. The June poll showed Perry's approval rating at just 43 percent. Another University of TexasTexas Tribune poll shows him doing considerably worse.
A call to Perry’s office Wednesday was not returned.