Failed '13 legisation case of good things take time?
HARRISBURG - After al-Qaida terrorists attacked the nation on Sept. 11, 2001, Pennsylvania's elected leaders faced calls to re-establish a state grant program that helped volunteer fire departments buy equipment, fix up fire stations and pay for training.
The year-old $25 million grant program complemented a long-standing loan program for fire companies, but the Ridge administration blocked renewing it under the 2001-02 state budget as finances tightened.
As lawmakers returned to session, a coalition of groups representing fire companies, ambulance squads and emergency medical units urged reviving the program as a first order of business.
The call was made as Americans grappled with the raw images of New York City firefighters falling in the line of duty as the Twin Towers crumbled.
This was a time of great apprehension in Harrisburg with Gov. Tom Ridge resigning to head a newly created federal homeland security office. Gov. Mark Schweiker's inauguration was one of the first outdoor public events to take place after 9/11.
In his inaugural speech, Schweiker said his highest priority was ensuring that Pennsylvanians would live free of fear. He ordered an additional 100 state troopers on patrol duty and created a task force on security.
Notwithstanding the gravity of the situation, it wasn't until 2003 that the $25 million grant program was re-established under a law signed by the succeeding governor, Ed Rendell.
The two-year delay amid an economic downturn is instructive as lawmakers return Sept. 23 to presumably take up work on the issues pushed by Gov. Tom Corbett that eluded resolution last spring - transportation funding, liquor privatization and public pension reform. There's been no sign during a long and quiet summer of any breakthrough on these three issues.
The Fire Company and Volunteer Ambulance Service Grant Program continues to this day. Only the $30 million to fund the grants now comes from transfers from two special funds receiving the state share of gambling revenue. A 2012 state law makes paid companies eligible for grants. The program is up for reauthorization in 2016.
Under Corbett, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency has been protected from the budget cuts that hit many other state agencies. PEMA has received funds during the past two years to cover the state match to federal aid for the 2011 flood disasters and Super Storm Sandy last year.
But the Legislature broke with tradition by not approving a borrowing package to provide additional assistance to repair infrastructure and help victims of the 2011 floods.
Sen. Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Township, Luzerne County, chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, has introduced legislation to create a permanent state disaster assistance fund to help repair damages to uninsured primary residences, personal property and public facilities. The fund would kick in for floods, fires, storms, tornadoes and hazardous spills where damages fall below the state's $16.5 million threshold for federal aid.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)