TAMPA, Fla. – March 5, 2014 – A bill to repeal many of the rate hikes in the government’s flood insurance program passed in the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday with strong bipartisan support.
After weeks of revisions by both House Republicans and Democrats, the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act passed 306-91 following a brief debate on the floor.
Before the vote, members of both parties made passionate appeals in favor of the legislation, saying it would relieve homeowners burdened by excessive premiums while ensuring the deeply indebted National Flood Insurance Program remains solvent.
“It will provide relief for homeowners struggling to keep their homes. It will ensure all participants in the flood program are treated fairly and eliminate an untenable financial burden in these tough economic times,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor.
Tampa Democrat Rep. Kathy Castor praised the bipartisan agreement on the bill, echoing members from New York, New Jersey, Louisiana and even landlocked states like West Virginia.
“I’m heartened here today because even though this Congress has a reputation for not addressing the challenges that face families all across this country, we’re going to come together here today to address a very important financial issue for families.”
The bill was passed under the “suspension of the rules” procedure, a method to speed up voting on legislation that has broad, bipartisan support.
Passage required a two-thirds majority, more than the 230 bipartisan co-sponsors who had already signaled their support.
Fiscal conservatives led by House financial services committee chair Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-TX, opposed to the bill, complaining that it forces taxpayers to continue subsidizing a small portion of at-risk properties that will continue getting low rates.
The rolling back of several financial reforms meant to fix the flood program’s $24 billion debt has stirred controversy with conservative and environmental groups.
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page Monday called for Congress to vote down the bill.
Among other measures, the bill would keep “grandfathered” rates in place for homes in flood zones after new flood maps are drawn up.
It allows homebuyers to keep a home’s lower, subsidized rate instead of immediately paying higher premiums based on the property’s full risk of flood.
If the bill becomes law, people who bought homes after the passage of the 2012 Biggert-Waters Act and saw huge premium spikes could be eligible for a refund.
On average, premiums would go by up 15 percent each year with a hard cap of 18 percent.
A policy surcharge of $25 for primary residences and $250 for other properties would go into a reserve fund to ensure the program has the financial wherewithal to pay claims in the event of a Hurricane Katrina-like catastrophe.
Gov. Rick Scott released a statement Tuesday night calling the bill’s passage “an important win in our fight to undo the unfair flood insurance rate hikes that are hurting Florida families.”
It may be a while before the changes reach policyholders.
The bill must be reconciled with a version passed in the Senate, which had called for a delay of rate increases, before going to the president to sign into law.
“Although it doesn’t go as far as the bill we passed in the Senate, it’s good the House has approved some curbs on flood insurance,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, said in a statement after Tuesday’s vote.
“For the sake of policyholders facing massive rate hikes, I hope we can get a final version sent to the president quickly.”
If it becomes law, it could take many months for FEMA to work out the bill’s implementation and communicate changes to insurance agencies that write policies for the government flood program, said Patty Templeton-Jones, executive vice president and chief operating officer of St. Petersburg-based Wright Flood.
“Once it passes, it’s going to be waiting for FEMA to give us guidance,” she said.
In Florida, 13 percent of the state’s 2 million flood policies are subject to rate changes under the Biggert-Waters Act, as FEMA removes subsidies on older homes that had been paying premiums that don’t reflect their true flood risk, according to a report by Florida Tax Watch.
Pinellas County has more than 33,000 single-family homes affected by the law, with the largest number of properties in the country.
Copyright © 2014 Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.), Josh Boatwright.
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