Flood program expansion approved by House panel Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act of 2007 Here are the key features of H.R. 3121:
By MARIA RECIO
SUN HERALD WASHINGTON BUREAU
WASHINGTON -- The House Financial Services Committee voted Thursday to make a dramatic change in federal disaster insurance by expanding the national flood insurance program to cover wind damage.
The 38-29 vote, largely along party lines, in favor of the Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act of 2007 was spurred by a pledge House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., made after Hurricane Katrina to the coastal communities of Mississippi and Louisiana.
Pelosi will lead a bipartisan delegation to the region in mid-August before the second anniversary of the hurricane, appearing at Bay St. Louis' Our Lady of the Gulf Catholic Church on Aug. 13.
The vote is a personal victory for Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Bay St. Louis, who lost his home in Katrina. Taylor has made it a crusade to explain to members how the current system creates a shortfall with private insurance companies covering wind damage and the federal government covering water, resulting in a bias by insurers who administer the flood program to label all damage "water."
"This really helps people in all coastal areas," said Taylor, noting residents in North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Maine and New York would be able to purchase the expanded coverage, as well as in his home state of Mississippi. "Fifty percent of all Americans live in coastal areas."
Under the committee-approved bill, policyholders of the flood insurance program would be able to purchase wind insurance policies as well. The policies would not be available for those seeking exclusively wind coverage.
The multiple-peril residential policy limit would be set at $500,000 for the structure and $150,000 for contents. The bill increases the maximum coverage for flood insurance policies from $250,000 to $335,000 for residences.
House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., said the expanded program would pay for itself through actuarially determined premiums. "What does it cost (taxpayers)? Nothing," said Frank. "It is revenue neutral." He said the bill was necessary because "in the Gulf situation, it was difficult to tell, if not impossible, wind damage."
The legislation encountered stiff resistance from Republicans who said it exposed the federal government to steep liability at a time when the insurance fund was essentially bankrupt. Insurers and consumer groups are opposed to the expansion, warning losses will dramatically increase as claims rise.
"I am not ready to support shifting the burden of wind damage to a plan that is nearly $18 billion in the red," said Rep. Spencer Bacchus, R-Ala., the committee's ranking Republican. The flood insurance program had to borrow $17.5 billion more than it took in because of Katrina-Rita claims.
The legislation makes reforms in the program, increases premiums, phases out subsidized rates paid by vacation-home owners and raises the borrowing authority.
Republican members offered several amendments stripping or delaying the wind provision from the bill, but they were defeated. Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., who opposed the addition of wind coverage until Congress studies the issue further, complained the controversy could sink the legislation.
"This is really adding a poison pill to flood insurance reform bill," said Biggert. Frank acknowledged the bill was controversial but said it would be ready for a floor vote in September.
Taylor predicted the bill would pass on the House floor and hopes in the Senate he can turn to Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., who also lost his home to Katrina
Democrats, led by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., chair of the panel's housing and community opportunity subcommittee, recently attached the language from Taylor's bill on "multiple perils" to the flood insurance reauthorization bill.
But Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, questioned whether the plan would stay budget-neutral. "I know from experience that these designs don't always work out the way they're supposed to." He said, "I'm still not convinced the private insurance market won't work."
Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., countered that the post-Katrina insurance response "was a massive failure of the private sector. There are still people down there who haven't been paid."
Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act of 2007 Here are the key features of H.R. 3121: