Flood re­form plan clears House

Houston Chronicle - - BUSINESS - By James Os­borne

WASH­ING­TON — House Repub­li­cans passed leg­is­la­tion Tues­day seek­ing to shore up the fi­nances of the Na­tional Flood In­sur­ance Pro­gram.

Ti­tled the 21st Cen­tury Flood Re­form Act, the bill, which passed the cham­ber with bi­par­ti­san sup­port by a vote of 237-189, seeks to sta­bi­lize the flood pro­gram by shift­ing home­own­ers to­ward pri­vate in­sur­ers and rais­ing rates on home­own­ers whose houses have flooded re­peat­edly.

At­ten­tion will now turn to the Se­nate, where sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion is al­ready in the works.

“It is an ab­so­lutely rev­o­lu­tion­ary re­form that we can break open the gov­ern­ment mo­nop­oly and bring in mar­ket com­pe­ti­tion, in­no­va­tion, more af­ford­able rates for so many,” said Rep. Jeb Hen­sar­ling, R-Dal­las, chair­man of the House Fi­nan­cial Ser­vices Com­mit­tee.

“Today’s vote on the #Flood­In­surance bill pro­vides im­por­tant re­forms for tax­pay­ers and cer­tainty for pol­i­cy­hold­ers,” House Ma­jor­ity Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., wrote on Twit­ter.

The bill’s pas­sage fol­lows a lengthy ne­go­ti­a­tion over the past six months, as Repub­li­cans and Democrats alike bat­tled over a pro­gram that those liv­ing along oceans and rivers rely on heav­ily to sub­si­dize their flood in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums but has run mas­sive deficits over the past decade.

Laura Light­body, project di­rec­tor of the Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts’ flood-pre­pared com­mu­ni­ties ini­tia­tive, wrote in a blog post that the leg­is­la­tion “ad­dresses the grow­ing and costly drain of re­peat­edly flooded prop­er­ties on the NFIP.”

“His­tor­i­cally rep­re­sent­ing just about 1 per­cent of pol­i­cy­hold­ers but roughly 25 to 30 per­cent of the pro­gram’s claims, the num­ber of these prop­er­ties has been grow­ing and may con­tinue to

in­crease as lower-risk prop­erty own­ers opt for pri­vate flood in­sur­ance,” she wrote.

Tues­day’s vote rep­re­sents a vic­tory for Hen­sar­ling, who has pushed for flood in­sur­ance re­form for years and has said he will re­tire at the end of his term in early 2019.

But get­ting pas­sage was not easy. Ear­lier this month, Hen­sar­ling an­nounced a deal with Scalise that gave home­own­ers with re­peated flood claims on their record a break — only their fu­ture claims, not past claims, would be counted.

For con­gress­men rep­re­sent­ing flood-prone ar­eas, like Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, keep­ing pre­mi­ums from ris­ing too high was a ne­ces­sity af­ter ear­lier at­tempts to over­haul the pro­gram drew an­gry re­sponses from con­stituents.

“This bill con­tains com­mon-sense re­forms that make sure Amer­i­cans liv­ing in high-flood ar­eas can still pur­chase af­ford­able flood in­sur­ance,” he said. “I’m proud that my col­leagues and I were able to find a so­lu­tion that puts NFIP on a sus­tain­able fi­nan­cial path and will pro­vide needed re­lief dur­ing fu­ture flood­ing events. I urge the Se­nate to act quickly as well.”

Texas House Repub­li­cans voted unan­i­mously for the bill, while Texas Democrats voted against, with the ex­cep­tion of Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin.

Right now there are at least three bills in the Se­nate ad­dress­ing the flood in­sur­ance pro­gram, with Sen. Bob Me­nen­dez, DN.J., and Sen. Bill Cas­sidy, R-La., each lead­ing their own bi­par­ti­san coali­tion. At the same time, White House of­fi­cials have ex­pressed sup­port for a pro­vi­sion block­ing newly con­structed homes from get­ting cov­er­age un­der the pro­gram, some­thing that was orig­i­nally in the House leg­is­la­tion but was re­moved over the sum­mer.

Fol­low­ing the mass flood­ing around Hous­ton af­ter Hur­ri­cane Har­vey — and the large flood in­sur­ance bill ex­pected to come with it — politi­cians in Wash­ing­ton are un­der pres­sure to make a fix be­fore reau­tho­riz­ing the pro­gram, which is sched­uled to ex­pire next month.

“For far too long, hard­work­ing Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers have been trapped in a never-end­ing bailout cy­cle for the NFIP,” said Rep. Roger Wil­liams, RAustin.

Melissa Phillip / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle file

Hous­ton fire­fighter Jor­dan Mo­rales cleans up his flooded house in Spring in the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey.

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