EDITORIAL: What’s the governor waiting for?

UNFUNDED MANDATE. If you own property in this state, you clutch your wallet and imagine that life in the Carolinas might not be so bad whenever you hear those words. But what if an unfunded mandate made sense, as in taking care of people who take care of us? Could we learn to love–well, appreciate–a state requirement we must fund?

The fate of a new such mandate is in the governor’s hands right now. Both the Assembly and state Senate have passed a bill requiring volunteer fire companies and departments to carry disability insurance that would pay up to $25,000 for treatment of cancers more common among volunteer firefighters, with up to $50,000 for multiple cancers. It would also more than double current disability payments, raising the amount to $1,500 a month, and the bill includes a cancer death benefit of up to $50,000. The bill applies to those volunteers with five or more years of service actively fighting fires. Paid firefighters already are covered.

There are 32 volunteer fire companies and departments in Columbia County. There are no paid firefighters here at all. Zero. We expect our neighbors who volunteer for this task to rush to our aid whenever a fire breaks out and to show up for other emergencies like floods and traffic accidents. And that’s exactly what they do. They provide us with tangible benefits: What would our insurance costs be if we had fewer fire companies? What would our tax bills be if they included full-time firefighters?

The list of cancers associated with fighting fires is not easy reading: prostate, breast, lymphatic, hematological, digestive, urinary, neurological, reproductive system and melanoma. Most of the stuff in our homes, businesses and vehicles produces some sort of carcinogenic byproduct when it burns. The protective gear that firefighters wear goes only so far in reducing the risks.

The bill awaiting the governor’s signature takes a “presumptive” approach. Volunteer firefighters would have to be examined at the outset to see that they don’t have cancer, but once they put in five years they would not have to prove their cancer was caused by their exposure to fire-related toxins. The law presumes it was.

Fire companies and departments already are funded through the property tax and this “gap” insurance coverage would be an added cost. The bill says it all: “A political subdivision liable for providing insurance pursuant to this section may use proceeds from real property taxes for such purposes.” As it appears on the state Senate website, the fiscal impact of the measure is classified as “unknown.”

So it is by definition an unfunded mandate, and one that’s long overdue. All four state lawmakers who represent Columbia County in Albany co-sponsored this legislation, three Republicans and a Democrat. Now it sits among the pile of two-house bills that Governor Cuomo can sign, veto or ignore.

It’s hard to understand why the governor didn’t sign this bill into law the moment it was passed. Both houses of the legislature say this is a good bill for their constituents. If somebody were to call him out on the tax implications Mr. Cuomo could point his finger at lawmakers and say: Blame them, they asked for it…. And he’d be right. But there’s no organized opposition.

The time is getting short. If the governor vetoes the bill he risks a major bi-partisan outcry. And anyway, why would he want to antagonize upstate rural voters more than he already has? By contrast, imagine the goodwill he’d generate by signing this bill surrounded by volunteer firefighters. You’d think it would be irresistible to any politician, and especially Mr. Cuomo.

But once the legislature adjourns, as it did late last month, the governor has just 30 days to sign or veto the legislature’s bills. If he doesn’t act, the bill dies and the whole approval process must start again in 2018.

This bill doesn’t have a flashy name. It’s called “New York state volunteer firefighter gap coverage cancer disability benefits act.” The funds it provides won’t necessarily cushion the impact of a cancer diagnosis or shield a firefighter’s family from financial ruin caused by the expense of cancer treatments. But it will help some of the people who regularly risk their lives to protect the rest of us.

This is what our property taxes should pay for–helping the people who protect the lives and property of the citizens of the State of New York. Governor Cuomo should sign this bill right now.

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