HOW LARGE A SLICE?

How large a slice of the federal tax pie should the fire service receive from our elected officials in Washington? The question is still quite fresh, not only from the standpoint of domestic security issues but in light of the fact that it was only 2001 when the fire service first received a significant enough outlay of federal tax money to put us on the Washington radar screen—so we’re on an upward curve, funding-wise. We’re not done.

But it’s a complicated question. The short answer is “more than what we currently have and less than our wildest dreams.”

First, we need some perspective: Despite it being quite inconvenient for Kerry supporters in this campaign season, the fact is, in four years under the Bush Administration (and a Republican Congress) the fire service was the recipient of more funding and more relevant legislation from Washington than in the previous century combined. From the FIRE Act grants, Department of Homeland Security state assistance programs, Federal Fire Programs, and other programs, the fire service is the recipient of some $1.5 billion (with a “b”) a year from Washington, if not more, as compared with about $50 million (with an “m”) in the year 2000 and prior. The SAFER Act, the cornerstone of the International Association of Fire Fighters’ support for Kerry, was signed into law under the Bush Administration. Did 9/11 have a lot to do with it? Of course. But facts are facts.

We also need a dose of reality. Consider:

  • The fire service, like the rest of America, clamors for federal programs and then complains about budget deficits. We want the federal government out of our business, but we sure want the money. Everyone says they believe in fiscal conservatism and restraint, except when it impacts our slice of the pie. And there are thousands and thousands of slices to that pie. The truth is that there are few fiscal conservatives in Congress able to see the forest for the trees, Republicans and Democrats alike. Unless a wave of sanity breaks on that spendthrift bunch and federal outlays are better prioritized (and pork barrel spending strangled), don’t expect giant windfalls for the fire service. Note that, in October, the 2005 Homeland Security Appropriations bill sent by Congress to the President reduced funding for the FIRE Act grant program by $100 million, to $650 million
  • The President’s authority on spending is overexaggerated. The President proposes, recommends, requests, persuades, politicizes—whatever—on budget agenda items, but it’s ultimately Congress that creates the legislation and appropriates the money, and it’s in Congress where we’ll succeed or fail in our efforts. (Presidential vetoes, be they of the full-scale or line-item variety, don’t seem to be in fashion these days.)
  • Partisans have selectively used, for political advantage, the recent Council on Foreign Relations report, estimating that the emergency services in general are underfunded by some $20 billion a year. They’ve tried to turn a 200-year history of emergency services underfunding by local governments into a colossal failure of the federal government. That’s just absurd. And wake up: The fire service is not about to get another $6 or $7 billion a year for the next four years or the four years after under any President.
  • September 11, 2001 changed everything. And I have argued that local fire departments are in fact a critical component of the nation’s domestic preparedness army, and, as such, it’s necessary that tax revenues be allocated to assist significantly in that regard. But how much? What level is the right level? And where should the money go? Until the fire service leadership comes together and hammers out a plan based on reality—and acts in unison—then fire service legislative victories will forever be a patchwork of half-realized dreams or dreams that never came true.
  • “Offsets” is a big word in Congress. It’s kind of funny coming from legislators who attach pet amendments onto appropriations bills as if it were a rollicking game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey (no political pun intended), but the “rule” is you won’t get far with new legislation unless you provide for offsets to the new expenditures. Think there might be a connection between the new $65 million in 2005 SAFER monies and the $100 million we lost in 2005 FIRE Act monies? You bet there is!
  • Aside from larger philosophical-political issues concerning the role and size of the federal government, expanding your piece of the federal pie comes with difficulty and even risk. As was clearly shown in the establishment and organization of Department of Homeland Security and disbursement of homeland security monies, there’s a large gray area between the law and the bureaucratic execution of the law. Remember, the cops still control your money. Being in bed with the feds is no bed of roses or honeymoon; eternal political vigilance is required. And as we saw in the case of the United States Fire Administration/National Fire Academy, there are ways of taking away prescribed appropriations within agencies, if even for a short time.

As I write this, it’s less than two weeks before the election. Who knows what the future will bring? Certainly, under either President Bush or President Kerry, government will still be BIG. As I see it, that’s more bad news than good for the fire service in that the field of competitors will only grow.

Looking into the crystal ball? Under either Bush or Kerry, I predict annual fire service appropriations to increase on average $200 million over the next four years ($800 million overall). But don’t take it to the bank.

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