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Crunch Time in Washington

This is an election year, which means that most productive work on Capitol Hill will end around June 1, when the parties start to focus their energies on raising issues and forcing votes on the wedge issues that will frame the election.

The spring of an election year ends up being the last time to effectively move legislation. So, many members of the IAFC will be visiting their members of Congress just at the right time to make them focus on passing important fire and emergency service bills.

Already this year, we have had a major success! On February 22, President Obama signed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act (P.L. 112-96). This law creates a new 20-MHz nationwide, public-safety broadband network composed of the 10 MHz of the D block and 10 MHz already licensed to public safety. (See Moving Fire and Emergency Service Communications Efforts Forward.)

As we focus on the final two-thirds of the 112th Congress, the IAFC is focused on the following issues.

The FIRE and SAFER Grants

The IAFC is requesting that Congress appropriate $405 million for each program in FY 2013.

For fiscal year 2013, President Obama proposed $335 million each for the FIRE and SAFER Grant programs, which is similar to the $337.5 million that was appropriated for each program in FY 2012. However, this amount is still a nearly 17% cut from the $405 million that Congress appropriated for each program in FY 2011.

Many fire departments around the nation still don’t have the basic equipment and training they need for their emergency response capabilities, and they still can’t meet the nationally recognized standards for staffing. This problem has been exacerbated by the economic difficulties under which many jurisdictions continue to suffer.

The IAFC is requesting that the waivers to the SAFER requirements be extended through FY 2013.

For FY 2013, President Obama also proposed extending the waivers to the requirements for the SAFER Grant program. These waivers reduce the time commitment for the SAFER grants to a two-year period of performance and there’s no cost-sharing requirement. In addition, fire departments can use SAFER funds to rehire and retain firefighters.

The IAFC supports passage of S. 550/H.R. 2269, the Fire Grants Reauthorization Act.

Congress also is considering legislation to reauthorize the FIRE and SAFER grants; authorization bills lay out the long-term funding levels for programs and make statutory changes to programs.

In addition, the appropriations committees are less likely to fund unauthorized programs. The authorization for the FIRE Grant program expired in 2009 and the authorization for SAFER expired in 2010.

These authorization bills include provisions to expand the size of FIRE grants for jurisdictions and reduce the local match requirement. They also include economic waivers for jurisdictions that can’t meet the local matching requirement for the FIRE and SAFER Grant programs due to economic difficulties in their regions.

It’s important that Congress pass legislation this year to reauthorize the FIRE and SAFER grant programs.

U.S. Fire Administration

In order to prevent cuts to important USFA programs, the IAFC is requesting that Congress maintain funding for the agency at the FY 2012 level of $44 million.

Last year, the IAFC was instrumental in the confirmation of Chief Ernie Mitchell (IAFC President 2003-2004) as the U.S. fire administrator. Now we have to fight to give him the funding that he needs!

For FY 2013, President Obama proposed $42.52 million for USFA. This amount is approximately $1.5 million less than was appropriated in FY 2012. The USFA would have to cut funding for the National Fire Incident Reporting System, improvements to the National Fire Academy and programs that would promote fire safety and fire prevention in the wildland-urban interface.

Major Tax Legislation

Since the number of cosponsors on a bill is a clear indicator of how much support it has, the IAFC is asking members of Congress to cosponsor the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act, the Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Reauthorization Act and Volunteer Firefighter Fairness Act.

There has been a lot of focus on federal taxation issues recently.

Due to nationalization of this issue, there may be a push this year and next year to reform the tax code.

During the ensuing tax-reform debate, the IAFC will urge Congress to pass a number of tax- related bills:

  • Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act (S. 1035/H.R. 1792) – This bill would give building owners an incentive to install sprinklers by reducing the tax depreciation allowance. 
  • Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Reauthorization Act (S. 933/H.R. 2353) – The Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Act, which expired in 2010, allowed volunteer firefighters to exclude from federal taxation any property tax abatement and up to $360 per year in other benefits given to volunteers by local and state governments. The reauthorization would reinstate this benefit for volunteer firefighters and expand the benefit from $360 to $600 per year.
  • Volunteer Firefighter Fairness Act (H.R. 2630) – This bill would clarify the volunteer status of volunteer firefighters and allow fire departments to issue 1099 forms to their volunteers.

It’s important to show that there is strong support for these bills in Congress, so they can be included in any major tax-reform bills.

Despite our early success in the passage of legislation to establish a nationwide, public-safety broadband network, there still remains a lot of work to do.

For IAFC members attending the National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner, please take the time to meet with your members of Congress and their staffs when you’re in Washington to discuss IAFC-supported legislation.

If you can’t make it to Washington this year, please meet with your members of Congress and their staff back home when they are campaigning for reelection.

As we have seen earlier this year, only a concerted effort will lead to success. We need every member to do what he or she can!

Ken LaSala is the IAFC’s director of government relations and policy.

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