Pa. officials approve bill to forgive student loans of volunteer first responders
The bill would create the First Responder Loan Forgiveness Program, under which college graduates could have up to $16,000 in loans forgiven
By J.D. Prose
Ellwood City Ledger, Pa.
LAURENCE COUNTY, Pa. — A bill introduced by Lawrence County state Rep. Chris Sainato that would offer student loan forgiveness to volunteer first responders has passed a House committee and could get a floor vote next month.
House Bill 1786 would create the First Responder Loan Forgiveness Program, under which college graduates could have up to $16,000 in loans forgiven after serving four years with an emergency medical services agency, volunteer fire company or volunteer rescue company.
The bill, which was introduced on Aug. 30, was unanimously approved Wednesday by the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, on which state Rep. Jim Marshall, R-14, Big Beaver, sits.
"Retaining and recruiting volunteer emergency responders are among the commonwealth's greatest challenges today," said Sainato, D-9, Union Township, in a statement.
Sainato said the dwindling number of volunteer responders in Pennsylvania is "sobering," noting a state report last year that showed there were about 300,000 volunteer firefighters in the 1970s, but just 38,000 in 2018.
Departments are also facing difficulties recruiting young members, which will only contribute to further declines, Sainato said.
"The consequences are already being felt, as some departments have been forced to reduce services or shut down, while others have had to hire additional paid staff," Sainato said.
"It's a problem that threatens to undermine public safety and surely one that will impact taxpayers if we don't come up with viable solutions now," he said, touting the benefits in his bill as an "effective recruitment tool" to entice young people with student loans into service.
Earlier this year, Sainato co-introduced a bill to offer higher education benefits to the spouses and children of Pennsylvania National Guard members who re-enlist for a second six-year stint in an effort to recruit and keep enlistees.
That bill was unanimously passed by the House and Senate and signed by Gov. Tom Wolf on July 1.
©2019 Ellwood City Ledger, Pa.