Navigating the Gridlock: Finding a Path for Volunteer Legislation

Between the challenges of this year’s presidential race and the fewest number of laws enacted in more than 40 years, partisanship and gridlock have become a hallmark of the 114th Congress. Despite these challenges, however, Congress has made some progress on two important issues facing the volunteer and combination fire service: income taxes and grant-funding levels.

As the 114th Congress enters the post-election lame-duck session in mid-November, the IAFC is hoping Congress will cross the finish line and add these two important issues to their list of enacted laws.

Income Taxes

Building a benefits program that incentivizes volunteers but also complies with all IRS regulations has always been a challenge. The IAFC and other national fire service organizations have continued supporting the Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Act (VRIPA, H.R. 2752/S. 605), which was introduced by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Representatives John Larson (D-Conn.) and Dave Reichert (R-Wash.).

This legislation would allow volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel to receive property tax-based incentives and up to $600 in other incentives without it being considered taxable income. In September, the Senate Finance Committee unanimously approved VRIPA and added it into a larger bill, the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act of 2016.

The IAFC is hopeful that the Senate will vote on this larger package when it returns later this month. Additionally, the House version of VRIPA continues to gain cosponsors and the IAFC is hopeful it will be included in an end-of-year bill to extend expiring provisions of the tax code.

Grant-Funding Levels

The House and Senate also agreed to increase the amount of funding provided to volunteer fire departments through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) grants. The VFA Grant Program provides matching grants to fire departments looking to purchase new equipment or provide training opportunities for their members.

Both the House and Senate versions of the Department of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for 2017 (H.R. 5538/S. 3068) increase VFA funding by $2 million for fiscal year 2017, bringing the total program funding to $15 million. The IAFC is hopeful that Congress will enact this increased funding level for the VFA grants when looking to pass an appropriations bill for the remainder of the fiscal year.

One final task the 114th Congress will need to accomplish before recessing is deciding on fiscal year 2017 funding levels for the FIRE/SAFER grants and the U.S. Fire Administration.

The FIRE and SAFER grants were each funded at $345 million for the current fiscal year. Earlier this year, the White House proposed funding these two grants at $335 million for FY 2017 while the Senate proposed funding these grants at $340 million and the House proposed maintain the current funding level of $345 million. Maintaining this funding level is important to the grants used by volunteer and combination fire departments to recruit and retain volunteers as well as to buy new equipment and vehicles.

Additionally, the IAFC continues to support strong funding levels for USFA and the National Fire Academy. The USFA is funded at $44 million for the current fiscal year. Both the House and Senate have proposed maintaining this funding level for FY 2017. In particular, the House proposal would provide $42.5 million for USFA programs and $1.5 million for upgrades at the NFA. This funding level is vital to maintaining the educational programs that the USFA provides for fire chiefs around the United States.

While the 114th Congress might have a rocky road to navigate between now and the end of the year, the lame-duck session could prove to be a productive time in addressing issues facing volunteer and combination fire departments.

The IAFC encourages all members to reach out to their members of Congress and ask that Congress passes VRIPA, and increase the funding level for the VFA grants, and maintain strong funding for the FIRE/SAFER grants and the USFA. The IAFC’s government relations webpage has several resources to use when explaining these issues to your member of Congress and asking for their support.

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