Deal on aerial wildfire fleet near, but funding source still uncertain

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Aerial firefighting demonstration at Centennial Airport. March 2014

Aerial firefighting demonstration at Centennial Airport. March 2014

DENVER — After a contentious back and forth with the governor’s office last week, Sen. Steve King is confident he’s going to get the $22.5 million agreed upon to allow the state to purchase or lease a few helicopters and fixed-wing planes to help fight fires this summer.

But it’s still unclear how Colorado will pay for its own aerial wildfire fleet.

King is offering an amendment to next year’s state budget Thursday — one of 39 drafted ahead of a day-long floor debate — that would move $21 million from the state’s Benefits Management System to the Dept. of Fire Safety for the purchase of the new aircraft.

“We are getting some good momentum to deal with what I think is a clear and present danger to lives and water and air and land in Colorado,” King, R-Grand Junction, told FOX31 Denver Thursday morning.

While the governor’s office is on board with the plan, the Democratic sponsor of the long bill, next year’s $24 billion state budget, doesn’t like King’s proposed funding plan.

“In order to increase funding in one place, you really have to subtract it from somewhere else,” Steadman said. “You’re pitting different interests, different parts of the budget against each other.

“I’m very concerned about the proposed funding mechanism that we’re seeing in this amendment, but I do understand there is growing consensus about putting some funding aside for this purpose.”

The amendment was adopted by the Senate this week, but the budget will go back to the Joint Budget Committee next week to work through amendments from the House and Senate and it’s possible the funding source for the aerial fleet will change.