The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce is considering a bill that would direct the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to stop state governments from misspending funds intended to pay for maintenance and improvement of emergency services.
U.S. Rep. John Faso (R–NY) became the third cosponsor of the 9-1-1 Fee Integrity Act on August 10, joining Reps. Anna Eshoo (D–CA) and Lance Leonard (R–NJ).
The bill directs the FCC to issue a rule requiring state governments to use emergency-service fees only to fund 911 dispatching and other emergency service programs.
According to data collected by the Federal Communications Commission in 2018, at least five states— Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and West Virginia—reported diverting revenue collected from emergency service funds in calendar year 2016.
Seven states, commonwealths, or territories—the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Missouri, Montana, New York, Oklahoma, and Puerto Rico—failed or refused to respond to the FCC’s requests for data on their use of 911 fund money.
The bill, House Resolution 6424, was referred to the committee on July 18.
Saving Ledgers, Not Lives
Bruce Edward Walker, a policy advisor for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News, says state lawmakers may be tempted to use 911 funds to pad statehouse budgets instead of using them to fund rescue services.
“Since its inception as an emergency dispatch number more than 60 years ago, 911 has become entrenched in the psyche and daily lives of U.S. citizens,” Walker said. “The 911 system is successful because it works. While 911 fees are required for such an essential service, some state legislators have determined the system also works well as a slush fund for pet projects and bandaging over gaping wounds in state budgets.”
Thomas Aiello, a policy and government affairs associate at the National Taxpayers Union, says the problem of 911 fund diversion is not just theoretical.
“Generally, states are meant to use the revenue generated from this fee for its intended purpose, but as is usually the case with many politicians in statehouses, they view this money as just another source of revenue to help fund other areas in their budgets. Looking at FCC [Federal Communications Commission] data from last year, we know as many as seven states diverted 911 fees away from public safety into other areas of their budgets.”
Calls for Fee Reductions
If 911 funds have enough money to operate in spite of state lawmakers’ pillaging, the fees collected from consumers are too high, Walker says.
“It’s pretty apparent the fees are too high, if they collect far in excess of what is necessary to operate the service,” Walker said. “Furthermore, the higher monthly fees that ding consumers for the service disproportionately affect the customers least able to afford it.”
‘Dangerous to the Public’
Diversion of emergency-service money can be a matter of life and death, Aiello says.
“Looting 911 fees can be dangerous to the public and can certainly impact public safety,” Aiello said. “This is a deceiving practice to both ratepayers and to taxpayers, who are falsely told that the money that they earn is being used to help services in their community, when in reality it’s not. When states direct less money to its intended purpose, it can lead to a shortage of staff at call centers and longer wait times. During an emergency, timing is everything, and every second matters.”