Senate Coalition Pushing for Flood Insurance Rate Hike Delays

This week NAR continued a full push of the House and Senate on flood insurance reform. Things are moving smoothly in the house as they continue to gain support. In the Senate a coalition of support has emerged with Senators from Oregon, Louisiana, and Florida leading the way. Read this great article by Congressional Quarterly outlining the support, and the obstacles, in the Senate.

 

CQ NEWS – POLICY

Oct. 21, 2013 – 6:22 p.m.

Senate Coalition Pushing for Flood Insurance Rate Hike Delays

By Jennifer Scholtes, CQ Roll Call

 

The group of senators brainstorming ways to temper a set of rate hikes under the federally run flood insurance program has agreed on a general legislative framework, according to leaders of the cause.

 

The senators decided in a meeting this month that they will push legislation to force the Federal Emergency Management Agency to hold off on premium increases for at least two years or until the agency finishes a study on how to ensure flood insurance policies are affordable for property owners, according to Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and Senate aides privy to the group’s discussions. They also agreed to try to mandate changes to the way FEMA maps each region’s flood risk and how rates are raised on properties.

 

“We’re planning on pushing, basically — to oversimplify — a two-step approach: basically a timeout.” Vitter said. “And then, of course, ultimately you don’t just need a timeout; you need fine-tuning involved to get this right, which I think will be some fine-tuning both at the administrative level, particularly with regard to mapping, and fine-tuning with some congressional amendments.”

 

The faction of legislators from flood-prone states announced three weeks ago that they were talking through, but had not yet decided on, a strategy for scaling back premium increases Congress enacted last summer (PL 112-141) in hopes of stabilizing the indebted National Flood Insurance Program.

 

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate, Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Policy, hosted the group’s latest meeting.

 

A Merkley aide said this week that the senators “have come up with a framework of delaying and improving the flood insurance program,” but that there is no consensus yet on the length of the delay or how the program would be revamped.

 

The group also includes Sens. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La.; John Hoeven, R-N.D.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.; Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; and Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

 

Nelson said last week that the government shutdown, which dominated the congressional agenda for much of this month, “caused an unnecessary delay” in the group’s work. “But I’m still confident we can get it done,” he said.

 

Changes Underway

Since the legislation was first enacted last year to do away with subsidized and grandfathered rates under the flood insurance program, homes that have been sold are being assessed rates that reflect their actual risk of flooding.

 

On Oct. 1, FEMA began raising rates on several other types of properties, including businesses and those that have been severely flooded on a regular basis. But the agency will not begin phasing out grandfathered rates on all properties until the end of 2014 — a deadline lawmakers are keeping in mind as they draft proposals to stall the increases, Vitter said.

 

The senator hopes the group can enact a delay “within two or three months, versus even a year,” he said.

 

“But there’s no single, simple, hard deadline that changes are beginning to happen,” Vitter said. “A lot of them, and perhaps the most significant, don’t happen for a little bit. So I certainly hope we can act well before that.”

 

Those in Congress trying to ease the effects of the rate hikes, which they say are unfair and unaffordable for many U.S. property owners, have tried this year to introduce stand-alone measures that would force FEMA to hold off on raising premiums. They have found, however, that their language has moved closer to enactment within appropriations bills.

 

“We’re going to look for any opportunity that presents itself,” Vitter said. “But some spending bill is the most obvious, the most traditional, opportunity. So maybe the bill or bills that are passed between now and the January/February deadlines will be that opportunity.”

 

House Versus Senate

One of Vitter’s Louisiana colleagues in the House, Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, agrees it would be ideal to tack flood insurance provisions onto the next spending proposals Congress considers to fund the government once the latest continuing resolution (PL 113-46) expires in mid-January and suspension of the debt limit runs out in early February.

 

This summer, Cassidy succeeded in getting an amendment added to the Homeland Security spending bill (HR 2217) the House signed off on in June. But that language, which the lower chamber adopted 281-146, was not included in the stopgap spending measure Congress most recently enacted.

 

“We’re continuing to work on getting a critical mass,” Cassidy said last week. “Obviously we’ve already passed something. We’d like to again pass it, if it’s not going to advance on the CR.”

 

Getting signoff on language to delay the rate increases is more difficult in the Senate, though, where a few lawmakers have worked for nearly a decade to do away with subsidized and grandfathered flood insurance rates that have contributed to the roughly $24 billion debt the insurance program has accrued since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.

 

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and the Senate Appropriations Committee’s ranking Republican, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, have both said in recent months that they will continue to block proposals to stall the premium increases enacted last year.

 

“I have to think that there is still within the Congress a silent majority on this particular issue,” Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, said this month. “There are a lot of members that I think probably have more of the opinion of Sens. Shelby and Coburn, and some of the folks who look more at the fiscal side of this and say, ‘We have got to do something different.’”

 

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