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The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) and Assistance to Firefighters (FIRE Act) grant programs were created by Congress with tremendous bipartisan support to help address the significant staffing, equipment, training and health and safety needs of fire departments. Under SAFER, fire departments apply for federal grants to help pay the costs associated with hiring new personnel to maintain safe staffing levels, the importance of which has been well documented by independent studies and incorporated into Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. Under the FIRE Act, departments apply for grants to purchase protective equipment and provide needed training. Together, these programs have improved the effectiveness of fire department operations and protected the health and safety of fire fighters.
In Fiscal Year 2009, in response to the recession, Congress enacted waivers to SAFER allowing communities to use the grant to retain or rehire fire fighters laid off as a result of the economic downturn. Congress also waived a number of budgetary requirements, including requirements to maintain the fire department's budget, funding caps and local matching requirements. As a direct result of the waivers, thousands of fire fighter jobs were created or saved.
The SAFER waivers were intended to be a temporary measure to help fire departments weather the recession and are due to expire in Fiscal Year 2014. However, as the recession lingers locally and staffing reductions continue, it is imperative that they be extended.
The weak economy is causing communities to reduce fire department staffing and cut back on training and equipment, posing significant threats to public safety and local preparedness. Robust funding of SAFER and the FIRE Act will help communities secure the resources needed to protect the public. Additionally, extending the SAFER waivers will ensure that those departments that most need SAFER funds will be able to use SAFER to maintain or restore safe staffing levels.
For Fiscal Year 2013, Congress provided $675 million for the SAFER and FIRE Act grants and extended the SAFER waivers through Fiscal Year 2014.
As a member of Congress, would you support or oppose maintaining robust funding for SAFER and FIRE Act grants? Would you also support or oppose extending the waivers so that the grant funds could continue to be used to retain or rehire fire fighters?
2. Public Sector Pensions
In recent months, there has been a great deal of discussion about the solvency of public-employee pension plans. Misleading media reports have created a false impression that public pensions are going bankrupt because employers promised overly generous benefits paid for by tax dollars. Some elected officials have called for dismantling defined-benefit pension plans and replacing them with 401(k)-style defined contribution plans.
In reality, the vast majority of public pension plans are on solid financial footing, and the few plans that are facing difficulty are working aggressively to meet their challenges. Moreover, the benefits promised by these plans are neither overly generous nor are they largely financed by taxpayers. More than 70 percent of funds in pensions have been contributed by workers or earned by making prudent investments. Contrary to the claims about pensions bankrupting states, only about 3 percent of state budgets are devoted to pension contributions.
The long-range funded status of pension plans is based on sound and conservative actuarial assumptions. Almost all pensions that are currently underfunded are in trouble for the same reason: jurisdictions failed to make their annual required contributions during good times. When the stock market was rising and plans were showing a surplus, states and localities simply opted to forgo contributing their share. This led to funds not having sufficient reserves when the stock market dropped. Rather than acknowledge that their failures caused these shortfalls, some government officials are now using fire fighters as scapegoats by proposing to slash the benefits that fire fighters earned over their years of service to the community.
Dismantling pensions in favor of 401(k)-style defined contribution plans would be catastrophic for the retirement security of fire fighters and other public employees and would not save state governments money. States still would contribute to employees' retirement, but the benefits received by employees would be significantly less. Wall Street firms, which are behind much of the misinformation campaign, are the only ones who stand to benefit from such a change.
Congressional attacks on state and municipal pensions have come from two directions. The misnamed Public Employee Pension Transparency Act (PEPTA) would require states to calculate their long-term obligations using unrealistically low rates of return on investments, and create a false picture of the plans’ funded status. While publicly claiming their intent is simply to provide transparency, the authors of PEPTA have admitted that their true goal is to force states and localities to abandon defined-benefit pension plans.
A second attack on public pension plans is the SAFE Retirement Act, which would encourage states to replace their defined benefit pension plans with annuities issued by insurance companies. These annuities would pay benefits far below what defined benefit plans are able to pay and would eliminate vitally important disability benefits.
As a member of Congress, will you oppose PEPTA, the SAFE Retirement Act and other attempts to dismantle defined benefit pension plans for public employees?
As Congress considers comprehensive tax reform, attention is being focused on various tax provisions important to the nation’s fire fighters. A number of policy makers have suggested eliminating or capping the tax exclusions for employer-provided health care and pension contributions.
While tax preferences are often thought of as special carve outs that favor the wealthiest Americans, the tax exclusions for health and retirement benefits largely benefit middle-income workers. The tax exclusion for employer-provided health care has been essential to providing health care to millions of American families. And the exclusion for contributions into retirement funds has enabled Americans to plan for a secure retirement.
Removing or significantly curtailing these long-standing tax exclusions would have far-reaching consequences. Employers would cease offering health care and retirement plans, forcing millions of families onto government assistance. Moreover, the middle class would be forced to bear an increased share of the tax burden. At a time when the income gap between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of us is growing, it is unwise public policy to further raise taxes on middle-income wage earners.
As a member of Congress, will you oppose taxing employer-provided health care and pension benefits?
When the Social Security system was created in 1935, government employees were expressly excluded. Even when state and local governments were given the option to join the system in the 1950s, many fire departments were still legally barred from electing Social Security coverage until 1994. Because of this long exclusion from the Social Security system, local governments created pension systems for fire fighters to address their retirement needs without Social Security. An estimated 70 percent of all fire fighters are covered by pension plans that are independent of Social Security. These comprehensive plans are tailored to meet the unique needs of fire fighters by taking into consideration the early retirement ages and high rates of disability retirement that are characteristic of public safety occupations.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Congress considered various proposals to bring all public sector workers into the Social Security system but decided each time to maintain the current practice of allowing public employees the option of joining Social Security or retaining their separate pensions systems.
Recently, the issue has been resurrected as a way to generate additional revenue for the Social Security Trust Fund. In 2010, two separate national commissions on reducing the deficit included identical proposals in their recommendations to bring all newly hired public employees into Social Security in the year 2020.
A second, more recent, argument contends that public pension plans are unstable, and Social Security coverage would provide public employees with retirement income if their pension plan went bankrupt.
Opponents of mandatory coverage believe that forcing all public employees into Social Security, even if it is only new hires, would undermine existing pension systems that provide superior benefits and reflect the unique circumstances of public safety work. They argue further that the overwhelming majority of public pensions are on sound financial footing, and rumors about plans going bankrupt are not supported by the facts.
Opponents also note that any influx of funding to the Social Security Trust Fund would have a negligible and temporary impact on the fund's long-term solvency. Moreover, Congress already fully addressed concerns about people receiving benefits without paying in their fair share. The Social Security benefits of people who also receive a pension from non-Social Security-covered employment are significantly reduced.
Forcing fire fighters into the Social Security system would amount to an unfair 6.2 percent tax increase on these middle-income workers. At a time when many fire fighters have been forced to accept pay cuts and wage freezes, such a large tax hike would have a significant detrimental impact on family budgets. In addition, paying the employer's share of the Social Security tax would place a financial strain on many cash-strapped municipalities. This would lead to cutbacks in municipal services, including fire protection. It is unfair to force public agencies to now curtail or abolish these well-funded, financially stable plans just to generate a small amount of revenue to the Social Security Trust Fund.
As a member of Congress, would you support or oppose universal Social Security coverage for non-covered state and municipal government employees?
5. Collective Bargaining
Collective bargaining has a long and successful history in the fire service. When fire fighters and fire chiefs work together to address issues, it makes for a more productive workplace and improves public safety. Studies have shown that communities that promote labor-management cooperation enjoy more effective and more efficient delivery of emergency services.In too many states, however, fire fighters are still denied the fundamental right to join a union and bargain collectively. Collective bargaining is even being challenged in some states that have long enjoyed productive labor-management cooperation. In a short-sighted attempt to reduce costs, some policy makers want to abolish collective bargaining to make it easier to cut pay and benefits.
In recent years, Congress has explored expanding bargaining rights for fire fighters. Twice in the past decade, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act. In 2007 the House passed H.R. 980 by an overwhelming vote of 314-97, with a majority composed of both Republicans and Democrats. In 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives again passed the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act on a voice vote. Unfortunately the bill was killed by a filibuster in the Senate. The Cooperation Act establishes minimum standards for state collective bargaining laws for public safety officers.
Since then, the battle over collective bargaining has shifted to the state level, with some states attempting to undermine bargaining rights while others explore expanding such rights.
Do you support the right of fire fighters to bargain with their employers over workplace issues?
6. Federal Fire Fighter Presumptive Disability
Fire fighters are exposed on a daily basis to stress, smoke, heat and various toxic substances. As a result, fire fighters are far more likely to contract heart disease, lung disease or cancer than other workers. And as fire fighters increasingly assume the role of the nation's leading providers of emergency medical services, they are also exposed to infectious diseases. These diseases are now among the leading causes of death and disability for fire fighters, and numerous studies have found that those illnesses are occupational hazards of fire fighters.
In recognition of this risk, 42 states have enacted presumptive disability laws, which presume that cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers and certain infectious diseases contracted by fire fighters are job-related for purposes of workers' compensation and disability retirement unless proven otherwise. No such law covers fire fighters employed by the federal government.
Under the Federal Employees Compensation Act (FECA), federal fire fighters must be able to pinpoint the precise incident or exposure that caused a disease in order for it to be considered job-related. This burden of proof is extraordinarily difficult for fire fighters to meet because they respond to a wide variety of emergency calls, constantly working in different environments under different conditions. As a result, very few cases of occupational disease contracted by fire fighters have been deemed to be service-connected.
To address this problem, legislation entitled the Federal Fire Fighters Fairness Act would create a rebuttable presumption that cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and certain infectious diseases are job-related for the purpose of qualifying for workers' compensation and disability retirement benefits.
As a member of Congress, would you support or oppose the Federal Fire Fighters Fairness Act?
7. Taxing Online Sales
State and local governments continue to struggle to generate sufficient revenue to provide public services to its citizens. In addition to coping with a sluggish economy and cuts in federal assistance, states and localities are also losing revenue because of the dramatic increase in online sales. Although sales taxes technically apply to online purchases, there currently is no reliable way for states and localities to collect such taxes.
Moreover, traditional brick and mortar retail stores face unfair competition from online sellers who do not impose sales taxes on purchases. As stores lose the battle to e-tailers, storefronts close and property values fall. This further harms states and localities as their revenue from property taxes falls along with the revenue from sales taxes.
This combination of declining sales tax and property tax revenue has forced too many localities to cut spending on essential services, including public safety.
To address this problem, legislation has been introduced granting states the authority to enforce existing sales and use tax laws on catalog and online retailers at the time of transaction. The legislation does not create new taxes or increase existing taxes (consumers already owe sales taxes on the goods they purchase online). The measure would help to level the playing field between online retailers and brick and mortar stores, ease the collection of existing tax obligations and collect billions in owed taxes for essential public safety services. Consumers would no longer be burdened with the confusing process of filing these taxes on their own. With protections for small online businesses, access to free collection software and a simplified sales tax collection mechanism, this legislation will help businesses abide by current law while providing local governments with much needed public safety dollars.
The Marketplace Fairness Act has a large coalition of support including more than 200 businesses and labor, state and local government organizations, as well as bipartisan support from governors, senators and representatives. On May 6, 2013 the Senate passed its version of the Marketplace Fairness Act with a bipartisan vote of 69-27; the House is currently working on its version of the legislation.
As a member of Congress, will you support or oppose the Marketplace Fairness Act? (H.R. 684/S.B. 743)?
8. Attacks on Federal Employees
A combination of high budget deficits and anti-government attitudes has prompted some members of Congress to launch prolonged attacks on federal employees. While federal workers may seem a convenient scapegoat for the nation’s problems, the relentless attacks on employees’ pay, benefits and working conditions is harming the federal government’s ability to carry out its mission.
Since January 1, 2011, federal employees have faced a pay freeze that will likely continue into the 2014 calendar year. In addition, federal agencies have reduced staffing and workers are being required to do more work with fewer resources. These problems are being further exacerbated by sequestration and furloughs.
Federal workers’ benefits are also under attack. Congress has already passed a law requiring newly hired employees to contribute more toward their pension, and many members of Congress advocate extending these changes to all federal workers. Despite claims to the contrary, the federal pension system provides an extremely modest retirement benefit, with an average pension of just $12,780 per year.
Other assaults have included proposals to strip federal workers of their due process rights and take away their right to collectively bargaining.
As a member of Congress, will you support efforts to protect federal employees from unnecessary attacks aimed at cutting benefits, wages and retirement security?