WASHINGTON — A long-term authorization of the National Flood Insurance Program will get its first hearing in the U.S. House this week, but Louisiana's senators already are voicing concern over critical provisions that they say the current proposal doesn't include.
“This proposal is a genuine effort to solve a serious problem, but it lacks reforms needed to ensure the program is sustainable and that families won’t be hit with drastic premium increases. Our first priority should be to make sure this program works for the homeowners that depend on it,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge.
U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Madisonville, said he was encouraged to see efforts to move forward but is also concerned about affordability.
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"We need reforms to the program as well as a long-term reauthorization," he said. "I look forward to the opportunity to vote on proposals that will keep insurance affordable in Louisiana."
The NFIP, which covers more than half a million policyholders in Louisiana alone and more than five million across the country, has been strung together for more than two years with 12 temporary stop-gap measures. The most recent came last week, when President Donald Trump signed off on a $19 billion disaster aid package that also extended the NFIP through September — a move that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said they hoped would give time for Congress to hash-out a plan to provide long-term stability to the struggling program.
The U.S. House Financial Services Committee will hold a hearing on the proposal Tuesday. No members of the Louisiana delegation are on the committee.
U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, the California Democrat who chairs the Financial Services Committee, told a conference focused on flood issues last week that affordability is also a key issue for her.
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"We must put partisanship and ideology aside and ensure the continued affordability and availability of coverage for millions of Americans," she said. "We must renew the NFIP for the long term with a plan that ensures affordable flood insurance continues to be available to communities across our country as the first order of business."
The proposal being debated this week would extend the NFIP through 2024. It broadly directs the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to implement policies that would make the NFIP more affordable but doesn't spell them out. It also would require the FEMA administrator to submit progress reports to Congress for further evaluation of the program.
The draft that's being presented relies heavily on the experience of Superstorm Sandy that affected more than 144,000 NFIP policyholders on the east coast in 2012 and prompted the payment of $8.4 billion in flood claims.
The proposed NFIP reauthorization seeks to enhance inspections of structures, the appeals process and accountability in inspections.
It doesn't address some of the concerns that members of the Louisiana delegation have brought up.
A letter signed by Louisiana's two senators — Cassidy and Kennedy — and other senators called for an overhaul that factors in more accurate risk assessments, affordability components, mitigation funding and other improvements, including addressing "repetitive loss properties" through buyouts, elevations and other flood-proofing measures.
Repetitive loss properties are those for which NFIP has paid at least two claims of more than $1,000 in any 10-year period since 1978. At 7,223 properties, Louisiana has significantly more than any other state with damages totaling $1.22 billion between 1978 and 2015, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Natural Resource Defense Council.
Members of the Louisiana delegation have uniformly denounced the piecemeal approach Congress has taken with NFIP since September 2017, when the last major authorization ended.
“This ridiculous process has created significant uncertainty and anxiety for homeowners, renters, and small business owners in our states,” Cassidy, Kennedy and other senators wrote in a joint letter on the issue last month.
The NFIP has faced scrutiny from those who question its costs and efficiency.
The Government Accountability Office has included the NFIP on its "high risk list" because it hasn’t struck a sustainable balance between keeping insurance affordable and maintaining the program's solvency. That, the GAO says, has led to premium rates that "in many cases do not reflect the full risk of loss and produce insufficient premiums to pay for claims."
House and Senate leaders from both parties have expressed optimism about the long-term talks. U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said he believes a five-year agreement can be hashed out in the coming months before the program faces its next deadline if the parties and chambers are willing to work together in good faith.