McKinley: House lacks flood premium urgency

WHEELING – With a bill that would delay massive flood insurance premium increases for millions of property owners widely expected to pass the Senate today, Rep. David McKinley said he doesn’t sense the same level of urgency from his colleagues in the House.

The Senate measure, which cleared a key procedural vote Monday, essentially hits the pause button on a federal law, known as the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act of 2012, which phases out “subsidized” premiums for properties covered under the FEMA-run National Flood Insurance Program. Property owners in flood zones will see their costs escalate in stages until they reach actuarially sound levels – but all new policies are being written at “full-risk” rates under the law, making it difficult to buy or sell property in a flood zone.

McKinley, R-Wheeling, is among many lawmakers who voted for Biggert-Waters but are now leading the charge to soften its effects.

“I’m not getting the sense of urgency on both sides of the aisle. Some people are aware of it, but many people are not. … Very few of them are as aware of it as we are in West Virginia,” McKinley said Wednesday.

The proposed Senate fix would delay premium increases for four years, allowing time for FEMA to complete an affordability study that was supposed to be done before Biggert-Waters took effect Oct. 1.

But, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has predicted a four-year delay would cost the flood program, which is already almost $25 billion in the hole, another $2.1 billion over the next decade – a concern McKinley said is understandable.

“What they’re looking for is a way to pay for it. … And they’re not (getting) good answers” from the Senate, he said.

Earlier this month, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in no uncertain terms the House would not consider the legislation moving through the Senate, but left the door open for more modest relief for affected property owners.

It’s unclear what form such a bill would take, but McKinley believes one could emerge from the House Committee on Financial Services – chaired by Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R- Texas, an outspoken supporter of the Biggert-Waters Act – sometime next week.

Hensarling “said he plans to have a bill, and that’s a very strong position for him to take,” McKinley said.

If the two groups pass conflicting legislation, representatives of both chambers would meet in a conference committee in an attempt to reach an agreement.

Experts predict the new flood insurance rates will have a devastating effect on property values and the housing market in local river communities such as Wheeling Island and in neighborhoods along Big Wheeling Creek, where people already are reporting the new flood insurance rates are preventing real estate sales and discouraging investment in home improvement projects.

Much of the flood insurance program’s debt is attributable to disasters along the coast, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Proponents of Biggert-Waters argue the previous subsidized rates encouraged building in risky areas, but according to the law’s critics FEMA flood maps don’t differentiate adequately between levels of risk, particularly in inland areas, causing premiums to skyrocket for policyholders whose homes rarely flood – and even some whose properties lie just a few feet within a flood zone.

The recently signed federal budget bill includes relief for some of those owners by denying FEMA the funding to enforce some of the higher premiums. According to some estimates, however, that will only help about one in four of those affected.