It’s only springtime, but it’s already been a wild political year. Few pundits thought Donald Trump would be the Republican front-runner, nor did they foresee the challenge Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) would present to Hillary Clinton. The turbulence in the presidential campaign is being felt in Washington as everyone tries to figure out what a Trump, Cruz, Kasich, Clinton or Sanders presidency may look like.
This turbulence is being felt in Congress.
The legislative year is shortened more than normal since the Republican and Democratic conventions take place in mid- and late-July. Meanwhile, the appropriations process is already running into obstacles. Even though an agreement was reached for discretionary military and domestic spending caps for FY 2017, an emboldened group of House conservatives are pushing to reduce spending by an extra $30 billion.
Nevertheless, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pledge to try pass all of the appropriations bills on time this year.
With all of the excitement in D.C., it’s a good time to come to Washington for the National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner on May 5. There are some important fire and EMS issues for Congress to address. Even if you can’t travel to Washington, it’s still important that you meet with your members of Congress to get them to focus on your issues in the midst of all of these distractions.
Probably the biggest issues concern the fiscal year 2017 appropriations bills. Despite the conventions and convulsions, Congress still must fund the government by October 1. President Obama’s proposed budget presents some real challenges for the fire and emergency service.
Despite the fact that Congress increased funding for the FIRE and SAFER Grant programs to $345 million each, the Administration’s budget would cut them by $10 million each. Also, it would attempt to turn the programs into anti-terror programs by giving “priority to applications that enhance capabilities for terrorism response and other major incidents.”
The U.S. Fire Administration would be cut by $1.7 million. This cut would eliminate funding for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s annual ceremony and the State Fire Training Grants. It would also reduce funding for the National Fire Incident Reporting System.
The proposed budget also would cut the State Homeland Security Grant Program (SHSGP) by more than half and reduce the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) by 45%.
The IAFC is active on Capitol Hill, fighting to preserve our programs. On March 15, Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr, IAFC president and chair of the board, testified before a House Homeland Security subcommittee in protest against these draconian cuts. Chief Kerr demonstrated how programs like SHSGP and UASI fund fusion centers, mass-casualty capabilities, interoperable communications and other terrorism-preparedness initiatives.
She also described the importance of the FIRE and SAFER Grant programs in helping fire and EMS departments respond to all hazards their citizens face. Chief Kerr warned, “In the wake of an evolving terrorist threat, now is not the time to break a system that works.”
The IAFC is asking Congress to fund the FIRE and SAFER Grant programs at the FY 2011 level of $405 million. We’re also asking for the FY 2011 level of $45.6 million for USFA. In addition, Chief Kerr testified that UASI should be funded—at least—at the FY 2016 level of $600 million and SHSGP funded at $467 million.
The IAFC is also lobbying to protect successful programs that address other hazards. For FY 2016, Congress funded the U.S. Forest Service’s Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) program at $13 million. The IAFC is asking for the FY 2010 level of $16 million for VFA.
We’re also glad the Administration is following Congress’ lead and requesting continued funding for the ALERT Grant program in FY 2017. The program uses unspent funds at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to fund web-based and in-person training for volunteer and rural departments to respond to incidents involving the rail shipment of crude oil and other hazardous materials.
There may be an opportunity to pass bipartisan tax legislation this year. The IAFC is urging Congress to pass the Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Act (H.R. 2752/S. 609) as part of any bipartisan legislation. The VRIPA would exempt—from federal taxation—any property benefit and up to $600 in other benefits that states and localities give to volunteer firefighters. The legislation has 55 cosponsors in the House and six cosponsors in the Senate.
Because this is such a short legislative year, the IAFC is already starting to educate members of Congress about issues that will need to be addressed in the 115th Congress. For example, the FIRE and SAFER Grant programs need to be authorized before they’re sunset in January 2018. Public-safety agencies operating communications systems in the T Band (470-512 MHz) will have to migrate from this spectrum by 2023; the FCC will start auctioning the spectrum by February 2021. In some cases, jurisdictions using T Band spectrum have nowhere to migrate their communications to; Congress will have to pass legislation to fix the T Band giveback requirement in the next Congress.
Despite the distractions of the election year and the shortened legislative year, Congress has some critical fire and EMS issues to consider. It’s important that you meet with your members of Congress and help them to focus on the importance of funding programs like the FIRE and SAFER Grant programs and USFA.
The IAFC updates its Hot Sheet and Issues Discussion documents monthly. Please use these resources when you’re meeting with your senators and representatives.