GOP lawmakers propose eliminating income tax for volunteer firefights, EMTs

At least four bills already were pending in Albany to increase by varying amounts the $200 credit that volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers currently can claim to lower their state income taxes.

But a group of Republican lawmakers, most of whom had sponsored one or more of those credit-hiking bills, went for broke this month by proposing instead to simply eliminate state income taxes altogether for those unpaid emergency responders. Their new bill would extend that full tax exemption to any trained and certified member who has been on the force for at least a year and participated in at least 55 percent of the activities, starting with the 2020 tax year.

The sole Senate sponsor is James Seward of Otsego County, whose district includes four Ulster County towns. “This exemption would serve as a well-deserved thank you for the men and women who give freely of themselves to keep our communities safe,” he said in a statement on Monday. “The legislation would also be a powerful recruitment tool to help boost our depleted volunteer EMS rolls.”

Eight assemblymen are sponsoring the bill, led by Chris Tague of Schoharie County, whose district overlaps with Seward’s and includes Saugerties in Ulster County.

Assemblyman Karl Brabenec, a co-sponsor from Deerpark, said by phone this week that the tax exemption would cost the state an estimated $300 million. That pricetag, plus the fact that no one from the Democratic majorities in either chamber is on board, does not bode well for the bill. Yet the sponsors argue that waiving income taxes for volunteer responders would be much cheaper than localities spending $3.9 billion a year to employ all-paid departments, were that ever to happen.

Brabenec said that retaining members and recruiting new ones is getting harder for volunteer forces across the state, and that a big lobbying effort would be waged in support of the bill.

“We’re going to keep pushing this,” he said.

Under current state law, volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers are entitled to claim a $200 refundable credit on their state income taxes, or $400 for joint filers if both spouses are volunteers. Multiple proposals before the state Legislature would increase those amounts. One bill would raise the individual credit to $500 and then to $1,000 after five years of service. The most generous proposal would hike it to $2,500.

Volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers in New York also are entitled to reductions in their property taxes if authorized by their school districts and local governments.

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