As the General Assembly deliberates, debates and enters into the final stages of enacting a new state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, there are many worthy initiatives competing for limited resources.One of those worthy initiatives is my proposed legislation (SBs 23 & 24) that would grant active volunteer firefighters and active volunteer ambulance service personnel a $250 state income tax credit.

And, in my view, for all that our volunteer first responders do in the service to our communities, my legisla- tion should be more than a worthy initiative. It should be a priority.

It's been one year since New York State, as part of its budget process, enacted a state income tax credit for their volunteer firefighters and volunteer ambulance personnel.

Maryland has passed the first decade mark of their successful volunteer firefighter tax credit program that has worked to recruit and retain volunteers.

My legislation was one of the principle recommendations of the special 25-member Senate Resolution 60 Commission that, more than two years ago, suggested a state income tax credit as a recruitment and retention tool to help stem the decline in the ranks of Pennsylvania's emergency service volunteers.

The fact is, our volunteer firstresponders literally save Pennsylvania's taxpayers billions each and every year. That's billions with a "b." And, if we don't do all we can to reverse the decline in the ranks of our emergency service volunteers and lose our volunteer fire companies, Pennsylvanians will face one of the largest tax increases in history.

The cost of my tax credit proposal is about one-half of one-tenth of one percent of the state's $27.3 billion proposed budget.

And it's a far cry from the conservatively estimated $2.2 billion cost that taxpayers would face if the vast majority of Pennsylvania's communities that currently rely on volunteers for emergency response were forced to hire paid firefighters.

My legislation, which has been cosponsored by a majority of the members of the Senate from both sides of the aisle, is expected to be called up for consideration by the Senate Finance Committee very soon.

It is my hope that this legislation will not only receive a strong vote of support in committee, but that it will reach the full Senate and House as part of this year's final budget negotiations.

As with every state budget, it's about setting priorities.

Senate Bills 23 and 24 provide for a tangible recognition of the true public servants of our time: the men and women who don't get paid for responding 24/7, 365 days a year to fires and just about every other imaginable emergency; the men and women who sacrifice time and energy away from home and family to train, fund raise, maintain equipment and facilities; and the men and women who are often called upon to risk their own lives to save others in the proud neighbor-helping-neighbor tradition that is the basis of our emergency service organizations in Pennsylvania.

The least they deserve is a tax break. It's time they got one.

Michael A. O'Pake represents Pennsylania's Senate District 11. He is the Senate Democratic Whip.

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