House passes flood insurance rate delay as part of budget bill

The U.S. House approved a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill Wednesday that also would delay flood insurance rate hikes likely until early 2015 for some policyholders who were drawn into more expensive zones in flood maps.

The House approved the legislation on a vote of 359 to 67, with all but three of the “nay” votes coming from Republicans. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, who chairs the self-proclaimed conservative Republican Study Committee, was the only Louisiana congressman voting against passage.

The bill, which has the backing of the White House and is expected to be taken up quickly in the U.S. Senate, keeps the federal government functioning while also providing a short-term rate relief for some Louisiana property owners covered by the National Flood Insurance Program.

Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, originally sponsored the flood insurance language that helps some policyholders short term and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who is being challenged by Cassidy in her re-election bid, led the effort in the Senate.

Cassidy said the bill “addresses important priorities for Louisiana.”

The NFIP has been in financial distress with a loss of nearly $25 billion, largely due to payments made after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Louisiana has nearly 500,000 flood insurance policies, and there are more than 5.5 million policyholders nationwide.

Congress in 2012 passed legislation to make the flood insurance program more self-sustainable. But the rate calculations included in the law turned out to make flood insurance far more expensive than many anticipated.

Scalise said he voted Wednesday against the omnibus bill because the spending levels are too high for his liking. “While this bill contains some laudable provisions, it does not include a long-term fix to the flood insurance problem that I’m working everyday with Congressman Cassidy and our leadership to solve,” he added.

Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, said the flood insurance language helps gives a “little bit of a reprieve” and that the overall bill helps avoid government shutdowns and is “an important step to get us back in the regular order” of funding national priorities, such as river-dredging and port projects.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, said he “sucked it up and voted yes” because the budget helps with infrastructure spending and consumer confidence but he opposes the spending levels and wants more funding for education programs like Head Start and Pell Grants.

Richmond called the shorter flood insurance delay “weak” and said he wants the focus to be on the more comprehensive Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act, which is pending in the Senate.

That bill would delay by about four years the increases on flood insurance premiums for primary residences that have received “grandfathered” lower rates — excluding properties that suffered repeated flooding.

The legislation also would delay the property sale “trigger,” so that homes and businesses sold after July 6, 2012, do not see dramatic automatic insurance increases.

The bill does not address rate hikes for businesses, secondary vacation homes and homes that repeatedly flooded that were all grandfathered into artificially lower premiums for flood insurance before flood maps were created. Those policyholders will see 25 percent annual premium increases over a few years.

The Senate was planning to take up the bill as early as last week. If Landrieu is unable to get a vote on the legislation this week,

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday that the bill will be the first piece of legislation considered after the Senate takes a short recess.

Landrieu said the measure has enough votes to pass and it is just a matter of getting past a few GOP objections.

Opponents of the legislation contend that taxpayers are being required to subsidize insurance for those living in coastal areas or near bodies of water.

Landrieu argued the legislation is mostly about helping the “middle class” and keeping people in “blue-collar working neighborhoods” from being priced out of their homes because of skyrocketing flood insurance hikes.

In terms of the overall omnibus bill, the legislation also undoes the sequester-level cuts being made to the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund that will handle the dollars going to Louisiana from the 2010 BP oil tragedy.

The bill also includes Cassidy’s “EGO Act” to eliminate government funding for oil paintings of presidential cabinet members.

As for a top Landrieu pet project, the bill bans the use of federal funds for the inspecting of horsemeat for human consumption. In essence, this effectively bans domestic horse slaughtering – an industry that some were trying to revive in the U.S.

One negative for Louisiana though is that the bill does not include $700,000 to boost the prospects of Louisiana’s Poverty Point State Historic Site making it to the World Heritage List with other famous sites as the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge and the Grand Canyon.

Back in 2011, the U.S. cut funding to UNESCO after Palestine was allowed to join the organization. Congress has banned U.S. funding to U.N. bodies that recognize Palestine as a state before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is reached.

Consequently, the U.S. has not paid dues to the World Heritage Centre in Paris that is run by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, more commonly known as UNESCO.

Landrieu had inserted narrowly tailored language into an appropriations bill that added $700,000 only to the World Heritage Program to keep Poverty Point’s nomination from being unfairly punished. But some House Republicans refused to accept it.

Rep. Vance McAllister, R-Swartz, said he unsuccessfully fought for the money to be added and that he is upset with some within his Republican Party. He specifically cited a refusal from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who chairs the Middle East subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“I was pretty aggravated because the Everglades in her state are on the World Heritage (list) and this is the problem we have up here, even inside the Republican Party,” McAllister said.

“We may be a majority (in the House), but we’re divided.”