Congress holds onto PSAP funding
When President George Bush signed telecom legislation in December 2004 that authorized $250 million annually for the next five years to fund public-safety answering points upgrades and create a national coordination office, the call-center community was thrilled — and relieved — by the hard-earned victory.
But Congress will appropriate only about 10% of that amount during the next two years, according to a legislative aide to Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who co-chairs the Congressional E911 Caucus working to advance enhanced 911 services nationwide.
Speaking in June during a panel discussion at the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) conference in Long Beach, Calif., legislative aide Ray Fitzgerald said the goal is to get $3 million to $8 million this year “just to get things started,” which likely will take the form of establishing the national coordination office. Fitzgerald said the timing of the law’s passage is the primary culprit. “It was a little too late to get it into this year’s budget cycle,” he said.
But he added that the most PSAPs could expect next year is $20 million, which Fitzgerald said “would be enough to get the grants going.” He said the current federal budget crunch is tightening the flow of money, plus the PSAP initiative is just one of many federal budget items. “There’s a lot of competition for appropriations right now,” Fitzgerald said.
Patrick Halley, NENA’s governmental affairs director, said the association was disappointed with the current situation, but he was pragmatic. “The key is getting the coordination office established. Then we can build from there. This is still a win. It’s just not as big a win,” he said. “We’d clearly rather have the $250 million, but we understand the budget situation right now, and we figured that most likely we wouldn’t get full funding.”
Though disappointed, Greg Rohde, executive director of the E911 Institute — a not-for-profit organization that supports the Congressional E911 Caucus in promoting E911 nationwide — tried to put the news in perspective. “The game is that when you pass a bill, you put in a high number and then go back to get funding,” he said. “The reality right now is that the federal budget is a complete mess, and getting federal funding is now [more difficult].”
The disappointment replaced the euphoria NENA and its members experienced eight months ago, when the PSAP-funding legislation was brought back from the dead in the final hours before the end of the Congressional session last December. Whereas the House quickly passed its version of the bill in November 2003, the Senate’s version — co-sponsored by Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), who also chair the Congressional E911 Caucus — passed the Senate Commerce Committee one month later but languished.
The bill had been considered fast-track legislation. In addition to providing funding for PSAP upgrades to bring them into compliance with the FCC’s Phase 2 mandate — requiring commercial carriers and call centers to provide location information for 911 calls from wireless subscribers — it prohibited states from qualifying for federal grants when they divert surcharges collected for wireless E911 to other purposes.
But it took another year and a half for the bill to make it to the Senate floor, where it nearly died, according to NENA past President Bill McMurray. McMurray worked Capitol Hill hard for months in support of the bill, alongside Steve Seitz, NENA’s former governmental affairs director, and Rob Martin, the group’s executive director.
“It was a ‘Dewey beats Truman’ moment,” McMurray said. “It illustrates just how last-moment it was. The bill was dead as a doornail, and we brought it back to life. That was a major highlight.”