Storm re­cov­ery funds may hit snag

Bat­tle over bor­der wall could tie up money for farm­ers hit by Michael.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Ta­mar Haller­man ta­mar.haller­[email protected]

WASHINGTON — The scene on the ground, re­counted Al­bany U.S. Rep. San­ford Bishop, “was like a war zone.”

“It was like a 40-mile-wide tor­nado,” the Demo­crat said. “Trees were snapped in half. Pe­can or­chards were pulled up like weeds.”

Eight weeks af­ter Hur­ri­cane Michael wal­loped Bishop’s south­west Ge­or­gia dis­trict, the vet­eran law­maker is scram­bling to avert a dif­fer­ent kind of disas­ter: a political one.

He’s one of sev­eral South­east­ern law­mak­ers lead­ing the push for Congress to ap­prove emer­gency fed­eral fund­ing dur­ing the hec­tic fi­nal days of its ses­sion to re­build what Michael de­stroyed.

The ef­fort has bi­par­ti­san sup­port: Michael was one of sev­eral nat­u­ral dis­as­ters that hob­bled com­mu­ni­ties from Cal­i­for­nia to the Caroli­nas this year whose cleanup re­quires ex­tra money from Congress. And even if the storms didn’t hit their dis­tricts, most law­mak­ers are keenly aware that they could need help from Washington one day if a nat­u­ral disas­ter strikes their con­stituents.

But some Ge­or­gia law­mak­ers are wor­ried the fund­ing stream could be stalled by a broader show­down over Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s bor­der wall as newly em­bold­ened con­gres­sional Democrats lock horns with the pres­i­dent over fund­ing lev­els.

The bat­tle royal is threat­en­ing to halt all leg­is­lat­ing in Washington and po­ten­tially lead to a Christ­mas­time gov­ern­ment shut­down.

“Those of us from Ge­or­gia, Flor­ida and Alabama have got to con­tinue to make it clear that what­ever hap­pens, the dam­age from Hur­ri­cane Michael needs to be ad­dressed be­fore we leave” for the hol­i­days, said U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, whose South Ge­or­gia dis­trict was also hard-hit.

‘Most vul­ner­a­ble hour’

The dam­age from Michael is stark.

More than 30,000 Ge­or­gians re­quested as­sis­tance from the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency in the af­ter­math of the storm, while the state’s agri­cul­ture sec­tor suf­fered a di­rect hit of more than $2.5 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia es­ti­mate, dur­ing a bumper crop year. When it comes to pro­vid­ing storm re­lief, Ge­or­gia’s con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion has stood to­gether.

Work­ing with the of­fices of Gov. Nathan Deal, Agri­cul­ture Com­mis­sioner Gary Black and lo­cal farm groups, the state’s fed­eral law­mak­ers have asked their col­leagues for up­ward of $2.5 bil­lion to help farm­ers ac­count for crop losses and bat­tered com­mu­ni­ties re­build their in­fra­struc­ture.

The fed­eral money would go hand in hand with a $470 mil­lion pack­age that Ge­or­gia’s Gen­eral As­sem­bly OK’d in a spe­cial ses­sion last month.

In ad­di­tion to ex­pand­ing a U.S. Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment pro­gram that Congress cre­ated to off­set losses from hur­ri­canes and wild­fires dur­ing 2017, Ge­or­gia law­mak­ers want help for tim­ber and pe­can grow­ers, who lost en­tire forests that will take years to re­grow to ma­tu­rity.

“This storm hit farm­ers at their most vul­ner­a­ble hour dur­ing har­vest and it is crit­i­cal that we as­sist these pro­duc­ers im­me­di­ately to ensure there can be a crop in 2019,” the state’s 14 House members wrote in a let­ter to the cham­ber’s lead­ers last week.

Along with Ge­or­gia’s two sen­a­tors and a bi­par­ti­san group of law­mak­ers from Alabama and Flor­ida, they have urged their col­leagues to at­tach Michael re­cov­ery money to a must-pass gov­ern­ment spend­ing bill later this month.

Their case is ur­gent, they say, be­cause it takes time for fed­eral pay­ments to trickle down to farm­ers, who need to re­solve their out­stand­ing fi­nan­cial is­sues with lenders be­fore plant­ing their 2019 crop early next year. Even be­fore Michael en­tered Ge­or­gia on Oct. 10 as a Cat­e­gory 3 storm, many farm­ers con­tended with strained bal­ance books be­cause of new tar­iffs and years of low com­mod­ity prices.

The stakes are ex­tremely high for ru­ral Ge­or­gia, Scott said.

“Agri­cul­ture and these crops, they’re the foun­da­tion of the econ­omy down there,” he said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “If the farm­ers don’t make money, the lo­cal car dealer doesn’t sell trucks. If the lo­cal car dealer doesn’t sell trucks, peo­ple at the lo­cal car deal­er­ship don’t have jobs, and the peo­ple at the lo­cal restau­rants” suf­fer, too.

Much of of­fi­cial Washington agrees with him. Af­ter sur­vey­ing dam­age from Michael in Oc­to­ber, Trump promised “max­i­mum re­lief ” for vic­tims, and the chair­man of the House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee said his pow­er­ful panel was “pre­pared to act quickly” to meet needs.

House-Se­nate ne­go­tia­tors on the spend­ing pack­age have been ze­ro­ing in on a deal that in­cludes sev­eral bil­lion dol­lars for cleanup from Hur­ri­cane Michael and other 2018 nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, in­clud­ing the Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires, ac­cord­ing to a con­gres­sional aide fa­mil­iar with the dis­cus­sions but unau­tho­rized to speak pub­licly about the de­tails.

Some of that money would go di­rectly to farm­ers to help com­pen­sate for ma­jor crop losses, as well as the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s ru­ral devel­op­ment as­sis­tance pro­grams, which can help re­pair sewer and drink­ing wa­ter sys­tems.

Congress is also likely to al­lo­cate more money to the Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban Devel­op­ment’s Com­mu­nity Devel­op­ment Block Grant pro­gram, which could help cities such as Al­bany re­build dam­aged homes, build­ings and other in­fra­struc­ture, as well as to the Small Busi­ness Ad­min­is­tra­tion for low-in­ter­est loans.

Bor­der fight

But a broader dis­agree­ment be­tween Trump and con­gres­sional Democrats is threat­en­ing to de­rail the spend­ing pack­age, which would fund about 25 per­cent of the gov­ern­ment through Sept. 30.

Trump and some GOP al­lies are seek­ing to cap­i­tal­ize while the GOP still con­trols both cham­bers of Congress and are in­sist­ing that Democrats agree to $5 bil­lion for the bor­der wall.

In­vig­o­rated by last month’s House takeover, Democrats are un­will­ing to give Trump much ground. House Demo­cratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is be­ing pres­sured by her members not to sign off on any money, while Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Chuck Schumer pre­vi­ously ex­pressed a will­ing­ness to al­lo­cate $1.6 bil­lion for bor­der fenc­ing — but not a wall.

“This isn’t ac­tu­ally about bor­der se­cu­rity; this is the pres­i­dent try­ing to man­u­fac­ture a shut­down to fire up his base,” Schumer said in a re­cent Se­nate floor speech.

The fund­ing dead­line was pushed back to Dec. 21 be­cause of the death of Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush, but the high-level stale­mate threat­ens to halt all leg­isla­tive work on Capi­tol Hill and po­ten­tially lead to a Christ­mas­time gov­ern­ment shut­down or a short-term fund­ing patch.

It’s pos­si­ble con­gres­sional lead­ers could de­cou­ple the hur­ri­cane money from the broader spend­ing bill, but that is not yet be­ing widely dis­cussed.

“The Pres­i­dent has made clear that at least $5 bil­lion is needed for con­struc­tion of the bor­der wall and he has ad­vo­cated strongly for ad­di­tional disas­ter re­cov­ery fund­ing, in­clud­ing for those im­pacted by the dev­as­tat­ing hur­ri­cane and wild­fire seasons,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a state­ment to The At­lanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion. “It is time for Congress to ac­com­plish both and send it to the White House for sig­na­ture.”

The es­ca­lat­ing rhetoric has wor­ried some Ge­or­gia law­mak­ers, who say their col­leagues should not ad­journ for the year with­out clear­ing a full hur­ri­cane cleanup check. Money in FEMA’s disas­ter re­cov­ery ac­count has helped bridge the gap for now, but they say Congress needs to act quickly to give farm­ers — and the bankers who lend them money — cer­tainty.

“If we don’t get a pack­age to­gether, it means that farm­ers are not only go­ing to lose this year’s crop but next year’s crop be­cause they won’t be able to plant for next year,” Bishop said.

Oth­ers aren’t as wor­ried. The state’s se­nior Repub­li­can, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isak­son, said Ge­or­gia law­mak­ers are well-placed across key Capi­tol Hill com­mit­tees, and Congress al­most al­ways comes through with needed money af­ter nat­u­ral dis­as­ters.

“I’ve been here 20 years, so I only have 20 years of ex­pe­ri­ence in Washington, but the only thing I worry about right now in terms of agri­cul­ture is that we haven’t passed the farm bill yet,” said Isak­son, re­fer­ring to a sep­a­rate agri­cul­ture pol­icy bill.

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