WASHINGTON – The Senate gave final legislative approval Tuesday to a bill ensuring that a victims’ compensation fund related to the Sept. 11 attacks never runs out of money.
The 97-2 vote sends the bill to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it.
The vote came after Democratic senators agreed to allow votes on amendments sponsored by two Republican senators who had been blocking the widely popular bill. The Senate easily defeated the amendments proposed by GOP Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky. The two men were the only senators who voted against the bill’s final passage.
“While I support our heroic first responders, I can’t in good conscience vote for legislation which to my dismay remains unfunded,” Paul, of Bowling Green, said.
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said 9/11 first responders and their families have had “enough of political games” that delayed passage of the bill for months.
“Our 9/11 heroes deserve this program as written,” Gillibrand said. “Let our heroes go home and live in peace and finally exhale.”
The bill would extend through 2092 a fund created after the 2001 terrorist attacks, essentially making it permanent.
The $7.4 billion fund is rapidly being depleted, and administrators recently cut benefit payments by up to 70 percent.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the House-passed bill would result in about $10.2 billion in additional compensation payments over 10 years, including more than $4 billion for claims already filed.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the bill guarantees “once and for all that the heroes who rushed to the towers 18 years ago will no longer have to worry about compensation for their families when they’re gone.”
First responders “won’t have to return to Congress anymore to fight for the compensation they always should have been given,” Schumer said. “They will be able to go home. That’s what they always wanted to do, just take care of themselves and their families.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who been the subject of withering attacks from comedian Jon Stewart and other activists, also hailed passage of the bill.
The legislation makes “solemn commitments” to firefighters, police officers and other first responders who “rushed selflessly toward the World Trade Center” just moments after the 2001 terrorist attacks began, McConnell said.
“Congress can never repay these men, women and families for their sacrifices. But we can do our small part to try and make our heroes whole,” McConnell said.
The collapse of the World Trade Center in September 2001 sent a cloud of thick dust billowing over Lower Manhattan. Fires burned for weeks. Thousands of construction workers, police officers, firefighters and others spent time working in the soot, often without proper respiratory protection.
In the years since, many have seen their health decline, some with respiratory or digestive-system ailments that appeared almost immediately, others with illnesses that developed as they aged, including cancer.
More than 40,000 people have applied to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which covers illnesses potentially related to being at the World Trade Center site, the Pentagon or Shanksville, Pa., after the attacks. More than $5 billion in benefits have been awarded out of the $7.4 billion fund, with about 21,000 claims pending.
Stewart, a longtime advocate for 9/11 responders, had sharply criticized Congress for failing to act. He told lawmakers at an emotional hearing last month that they were showing “disrespect” to first responders now suffering from respiratory ailments and other illnesses as a result of their recovery work at the famous “pile” of rubble left by the 2001 attacks.
A subdued Stewart said Tuesday that his work on the bill “has been the honor of my life,” adding: “We can never repay all that the 9/11 community has done for our country. But we can stop penalizing them. Today is that day.”
Gillibrand and other lawmakers credited Stewart for raising the profile of the issue and forcing a vote, prompting the comedian to reply sarcastically, “Yes, I think we can all agree I’m the real hero.”
Lee said he did not object to the bill, but wanted to ensure the fund has proper oversight in place to prevent fraud and abuse. Paul said he was concerned about its effect on the deficit.
“I will always take a stand against borrowing more money to pay for programs rather than setting priorities and cutting waste,” Paul said.
John Feal, a recovery worker at the World Trade Center site and a longtime activist, said there was “no joy, no comfort” in the bill’s passage. While he cried with Stewart and hugged him after the Senate vote, Feal said that was merely “to exhale, to get 18 years of pain and suffering out. And now it’s out.”
The bill is named in honor of three first responders who died after 9/11: New York City police detective James Zadroga, firefighter Ray Pfeifer and detective Luis Alvarez. Family members of all three men were in the Senate gallery for the final vote.
A young man cautiously climbed several steps with two adults holding each of his hands. He slowly slung his leg over a 1,000-plus pound horse and clutched the reins with trembling hands. Within moments, the shaking subsided and was replaced with a toothy smile.
Horseback riding can be intimidating for any newcomer. But imagine having both limited sight and hearing and climbing atop a horse.
On Tuesday, the University of Kentucky Deaf-Blind Project introduced young adults with both hearing and vision challenges to the sensory experience of horseback riding at New Beginnings Therapeutic Riding, a nonprofit that promotes animal therapy to individuals with behavioral, emotional, mental and physical disabilities.
“It’s been an absolute blessing,” said Michele Vise, executive director of New Beginnings Therapeutic Riding in Bowling Green. “We didn’t know how much they were going to accomplish. We didn’t know if they would progress past brushing the horses.”
Each summer, the UK Deaf-Blind Project recruits eight young adults with dual-sensory impairment – also referred to as deaf-blindness – to participate in what’s essentially an away camp to help prepare them for life after school. This year’s weeklong excursion will also involve visiting Chaney’s Dairy Barn and Top Crops.
“We’re trying to expose them to new concepts that might lead to interests that might lead to hobbies or jobs,” said Donna Carpenter, the project’s coordinator. “They come to gain skills to get them ready for work. They come here to meet other friends that I might not be able to meet.”
New Beginnings Therapeutic Riding was the first session to push the young adults into new territory.
On Tuesday, the crowded barn of UK’s deaf-blind support teams exuded excitement as the young adults climbed up ladders and onto the horses – and actually appeared almost as emotional as the participants.
The eight participants represented a diverse spectrum of dual-sensory impairment, which can range from slightly impaired vision and hearing to full blindness and deafness.
One participant had to take time to feel each step with his hands before climbing it. He was then guided onto the horse and immediately opted to swing his leg right back off, and found comfort sitting on the ground and touching the barn floor.
“When you’re blind and deaf, you have to have a lot of trust,” Vise said. “It takes time to build up to it.”
After practicing basics in the barn, the teams guided the six riders willing to remain atop the horses to a large, open ring to slowly walk around. Then they opened the gate for the youth to experience horseback riding on what’s known as the “sensory trail.”
Erin Gullett, an occupational therapist assisting with the program, expressed pride for each of the young adults’ progress.
“It gives them so many opportunities for them and so much support to do it,” she said. “We work for functional independence.”
Gerald Abner, an instructor with UK’s Teacher Preparation Program in Visual Impairments and one of the project’s collaborators, helps pair an individual with dual-sensory impairment with a student learner and a sensory communications expert.
“The transition is the issue,” Abner said. “The focus is on school. They don’t get worldly experiences. This is a way to bridge this gap.”
Janell Turner, an administrator with another project partner, the Kentucky Office of Vocational Rehab, said the program can help the young adults identify job opportunities outside of the traditional associations. In previous years, the program has taken the young adults to Lowe’s, Keeneland, an airport and grocery stores.
“It opens their eyes to what’s possible,” Turner said.
At the end of the week, the program coordinators create reports that emphasize each individual’s strengths and potential pathways forward.
– For more information on the project, visit education.uky.edu/kydbp.
When local radio personality Tony Rose first dreamed up Stuff the Bus as a publicity stunt 14 years ago, he couldn’t have imagined it would turn into an annual drive providing essential school supplies throughout a student’s time in school.
“We took kids from kindergarten all the way to the 12th grade,” Rose said, adding that after last year’s record-smashing success, raising 50,000 pounds of supplies, this year’s event is entering a new phase.
Previously, the event was a four-day marathon with Rose living on a school bus until it was stuffed with supplies, but this year “it’s essentially a one-day sprint,” he said.
This year’s Stuff the Bus live event, presented by Wendy’s of Bowling Green, will take place from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at Bluegrass Cellular on Campbell Lane.
It will feature a 12-hour telethon livestreamed on businesses’ Facebook pages, including the Daily News, D93 and others. The final hour of the telethon will be broadcast on WNKY, Rose said.
Supporters will be able to bring school supplies to Bluegrass Cellular, as well as call in and make donations that will go to students across southern Kentucky. Supporters can choose which county they would like their donation to go.
This year’s presenting sponsor is Wendy’s of Bowling Green, which is also accepting donations at its locations around town.
Bayne Million, chief marketing officer for Wendy’s of Bowling Green, said the business signed on to support the event because of the opportunity to give back to area schools equally.
“Our founder, Dave Thomas, believed in giving back to the communities that support our business,” Million said. “Stuff the Bus is a key way for Wendy’s of Bowling Green to do just that, to give back to both education and those who need school materials.”
Million, a former educator himself, said he comes from a modest background and remembers how much it meant to start the school year with essential supplies.
There are several other ways supporters can donate or give supplies, including going online to stuffthebusky.com to make a secure and direct monetary donation, Rose said. Organizers will also be asking for donations through Facebook pages carrying the livestream of the telethon, he added.
Along with dropping off supplies at Bluegrass Cellular or any local Wendy’s location, German American Bank locations are also accepting donations of school supplies, Rose said.
Houchens Industries, another key sponsor, has also been helping to raise support for the drive at its locations throughout southern Kentucky. Through its Summer of Giving initiative this month, its locations have been either accepting donations or school supplies that stay in their local counties, Rose said.
– More information about this year’s Stuff the Bus event is available at stuffthebusky.com.
A monthslong effort to boost the number of school resource officers in Warren County Public Schools is nearing completion, just in time for the start of classes Aug. 7.
“We should have one at all middle and high schools by the time school starts,” said Chris McIntyre, the district’s chief financial officer.
With funds generated by a property tax increase last year, WCPS partnered with the Warren County Sheriff’s Office to begin doubling the number of school resource officers in its schools to a total of 10.
The plan was to add an officer to each of the district’s four middle schools and employ a fifth as a “floater” based on need, on top of the five officers currently based at its four high schools and alternative school.
On Tuesday, the WCPS Board of Education approved an agreement with the sheriff’s office for the 2019-20 school year.
Speaking to the Daily News before the board meeting, McIntyre said the contract will account for updated training requirements put in place by the passage of Senate Bill 1 earlier this year.
The sweeping legislation, passed in the wake of a deadly school shooting in Marshall County in January 2018, emphasizes in part increased school resource officers and mental health services in schools. It went into effect July 1.
McIntyre said the school resource officers will help with a number of aspects of SB1 requirements. That includes doing safety audits for each school, helping the district use a risk assessment tool from the Kentucky Center for School Safety.
More importantly, however, is the officers’ role as an asset to students. A big part of their job is building relationships with students, McIntyre said, averting threats before they happen and to “be another line of defense.”
Throughout this year, the district has been searching for suitable candidates to fill the positions. Although the district will likely not be able to start the school year with all 10 positions filled, McIntyre said it’s closing in on that goal.
“I think we’re on a good trajectory to be able to have that 10th person hired,” in the next few months, McIntyre said. He thanked the Warren County Sheriff’s Office for their support in recruitment.
“They’ve done a tremendous job in getting folks in the door that are the right people.”