As we start the month of September, Congress is in a familiar situation: Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 begins on October 1, and the appropriation bills to have to pass for the federal government to remain open. This time around the White House, the Senate and the House could not agree on the defense and domestic spending levels. So, while the House passed several appropriations bills in June, the Senate would not start work on the appropriations bills until there was agreement on the spending levels. So, here we go again…
The good news is that we are making progress on other legislation. Here’s how the fall of 2019 is shaping up.
On March 11, President Trump released his FY 2020 budget resolution. Overall, the budget proposed an 8.5 percent cut to nondiscretionary defense spending along with an increase in defense spending. The U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Education, Health and Human Services (HHS), State and Transportation received the steepest cuts, while the Departments of Commerce, Homeland Security (DHS), Treasury and Veterans Affairs received increases. These proposed cuts met opposition in Congress. Leaders from the House, Senate and President Trump’s staff met over the spring and summer to try to work out a compromise. As yet, no compromise has been found.
In addition to this, the House FY 2020 DHS appropriations bill would allow DHS to waive the requirements for the SAFER grant program to allow fire departments to use SAFER grants to retain firefighters. The bill also would allow DHS to extend the period of performance for SAFER grants awarded in FY 2016 for an additional year. Overall, the House was very generous to fire service programs.
However, it is important not to celebrate these increases yet. The FY 2020 DHS appropriations bill was not considered on the House Floor in July, because of the controversy over immigration issues. Meanwhile, the Senate took no action on the appropriations bills. Currently, the Trump Administration is proposing a continuing resolution for FY 2020, which would keep federal programs funded at last year’s levels. It will be a busy September trying to resolve this dilemma.
There has been progress on communications issues. The Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act (H.R. 451) is slowly picking up cosponsors. It currently has 4 New York cosponsors: Lee Zeldin, Peter King, Max Rose and Nita Lowey. Since New York City’s public safety communications will be hurt by an auction of the T-Band (470-512 MHz), it will be important to push all the members of the New York delegation to cosponsor this legislation. You can use the IAFC’s Legislative Action Center to contact your representatives in support of H.R. 451: https://www.iafc.org/topics-and-tools/legislative-issues/action-center.
In June, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a new report highlighting the need for public safety to retain its T-Band spectrum. The GAO report explained the importance of the T-Band for voice communications for public safety agencies and pointed out that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had not identified alternative spectrum for New York City and other jurisdictions to migrate its voice communications. The GAO also pointed out that the cost of relocating the public safety spectrum would be $5-$6 billion and require new towers, radios and other infrastructure. The GAO report recommends that “Congress should consider legislation allowing public safety users continued use of the T-Band spectrum.” You can access the report at: https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-19-508.
Firefighter Health and Wellness Issues
Congress also has been focusing on firefighter health and wellness issues. In June, the House Judiciary Committee voted to report H.R. 1327 to the House Floor, and the bill passed the House in July. This legislation would authorize the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund permanently. In the Senate, the Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), promised to pass the bill in August.
Another important bill is the Helping Emergency Responders Overcome (HERO) Act (H.R. 1646). This legislation, sponsored by Representative Ami Bera (D-CA), would authorize programs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) to reduce the number of suicides in the fire and emergency service. The bill would:
- Establish a registry with anonymous information about public safety suicides at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for medical researchers to study the causes of these tragedies.
- Require HHS to work with the fire and emergency service organizations to develop a curriculum for peer-counseling programs. These programs would be implemented by individual fire and EMS agencies using their firefighters and EMS personnel as peer counselors.
- Require HHS and USFA to develop educational resources to help mental health professionals treat firefighters and EMS personnel for service-related mental health issues.
- Require HHS to review current best practices for treating PTSD and related illnesses. These best practices would be made available to national first responder organizations, local public safety agencies and individual first responders.
H.R. 1646 is picking up support. Currently, it has 49 cosponsors, including New York Representatives Elise Stefanik and Anthony Brindisi. We are working on getting a Senate companion bill introduced.
We also have seen progress on tax bills that affect the fire service. S. 803, the Restoring Investment in Improvements Act, would allow building owners to receive preferential tax treatment for retrofitting their commercial buildings with automatic fire sprinkler systems. This legislation has 36 cosponsors. The House companion bill has 162 cosponsors, including Representatives Thomas Suozzi, John Katko, Antonio Delgado, Chris Collins, and Sean Maloney, along with Representatives Brindisi and Rose.
The Volunteer Responder Protection Incentive Act (H.R. 1241/S. 1210) also is picking up cosponsors. Most recently of interest to volunteer firefighters, the House passed the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act (SECURE Act; H.R. 1994) in June. This bill includes a provision that would prevent the federal government from taxing state and local property benefits and up to $600 in other benefits for Tax Year 2019. We are now working on getting the Senate to pass similar legislation. Senator Chuck Schumer has been influential in this effort.
As we reach September, the federal budget situation is troubling, which is a common situation these days. However, Congress has been making progress on other important pieces of legislation affecting public communications, firefighter mental wellness and volunteer benefits. Please be sure to keep in touch with your Congressional offices about important fire and emergency service issues. We’ll keep you informed about what is happening here in Washington.
Ken LaSala is the director of Government Relations at the IAFC