Wildfire smoke obliterates the sun in Everett in 2018. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

Wildfire smoke obliterates the sun in Everett in 2018. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

Lands commissioner proposes insurance fee for wildfire fund

Hilary Franz says the money would be used to expand firefighting and restore the health of forests.

Associated Press and Herald Staff

TUMWATER — An annual $5 surcharge would be tacked onto home and auto insurance policies to combat wildfires under a proposal put forth Monday by the state’s commissioner of public lands.

Commissioner Hilary Franz estimates the surcharge would generate $63 million a year to fortify state wildfire fighting and bolster programs aimed at preventing them, such as reforestation. A bill creating the surcharge is to be introduced when the 2020 legislative session begins next month.

“Wildfire poses a clear and present danger to the health of Washington’s people, environment and economy,” Franz said at a news conference. “This is the Evergreen State. It is our responsibility to make sure it stays evergreen.”

Franz pushed a similar concept in 2019. But the means of collecting a fee on insurance premiums was more complicated in that proposal, and it failed to reach the floor of the Senate or House.

This new approach contains a flat surcharge of 42 cents per month — $5.04 per year — on each policy sold by property and casualty insurance companies. Franz estimated it will cost the average household just over $1 per month, based on a homeowner’s policy and two auto policies.

“That’s cheaper than a Bud Light,” Franz said. “By sharing the burden, we acknowledge that wildfire affects all of us and minimize the cost to each household.”

Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, criticized the bill as a bad idea.

“This is a wrong-headed approach,” Schoesler said. “Just handing money to the system is not the answer.”

Schoesler said the proposal would dramatically raise costs for farmers and small business operators who own substantial property.

“It’s not pennies a month,” Schoesler said, adding that the fund could also be plundered in bad economic times to pay for general state expenses.

Schoesler said the state needs to do a better job of managing forests and fighting fires.

“We’re being asked to pay taxes to support management that is not good,” Schoesler said.

The NW Insurance Council, which opposed the 2019 bill, issued a new release Monday expressing “serious concerns” with the new tax proposal. The council, based in Seattle, is a nonprofit, insurer-supported organization.

It notes that in addition to home and auto policies, the surcharge would apply to policies for renters, business owners, boats, motorcycles, recreational vehicles and farms. The council faults the proposal for targeting insurance policy holders to address a statewide concern.

“The surcharge is a regressive tax,” the council states. “The owner of a million-dollar summer home and luxury car directly in the fire threat zone will pay the same $5 surcharge as a low-income single parent with a renters’ policy and a used sedan who lives far from forest fire dangers.”

Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, co-sponsored the 2019 legislation, Senate Bill 5996, which the Democrat-controlled Senate Ways and Means Committee passed. He expressed support Monday for the surcharge.

“It’s a smart idea. To me this is about managing risks so we can keep costs down for everyone,” Liias said. “When these catastrophic (wildfire) incidents occur, it drives up the rates for everybody.”

Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, serves on the Ways and Means Committee and voted against the 2019 proposal. He had not seen Franz’s proposal as of Monday.

But, he said, unless the policy has changed substantially, “I can’t see myself supporting it. I think it’s going to be pretty hard to sell to the public.”

Franz, in her news conference, stressed that the number of wildfires is increasing, and so too is the financial toll.

She noted that a 2018 wildfire near Twisp cost more than $40 million to fight. In 2018, state firefighters responded to a record 1,850 wildfires that burned 440,000 acres, Franz said. The 2019 fire season featured 130,000 acres burned, she said.

About 40% of wildfires the past two years were in Western Washington, Franz said.

Costs to fight wildfires averaged $153 million per year the past five years, Franz said, and more than 2.2 million homes in the state are exposed to heightened wildfire risk.

The new money would pay for 42 new full-time firefighters, 15 fire engine leaders and trucks, a helicopter and efforts to prevent wildfires in the first place, Franz said.

The Nature Conservancy supports the bill.

“It’s time to recognize the reality of fire in our forests and make the long-term investment our forests and communities need,” said Mike Stevens, state director of the environmental group.

Wayne Senter, director of Washington Fire Chiefs, said the group supports the bill because “it is local fire chiefs and the citizens we serve who depend on and benefit from” reducing wildfires.

State Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, said climate change is causing more frequent and dangerous wildfires.

“Merely responding to fires, as we have traditionally done, costs far more in dollars, property and even human life than if we actively remove ground fuels” and take other steps to make forests more fire resistant, he said.

“That kind of strategy requires a stable revenue source,” he said.

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle, intends to introduce it in the House. It wasn’t immediately clear Monday who would do so in the Senate. Van De Wege was the prime sponsor of the 2019 bill.

AP reporter Nicholas K. Geranios reported from Spokane and Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed from Olympia.

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