N.J. Republican blasts colleagues for shortchanging Jersey Shore on flood insurance by Jonathan D. Salant
WASHINGTON -- Rep. Frank LoBiondo, whose Jersey Shore district was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, blasted his fellow House Republicans for advancing a flood insurance bill that he said was biased against New Jersey.
LoBiondo, R-2nd Dist., turned his ire on his colleagues during debate on the 21st Century Flood Reform Act, designed to renew the National Flood Insurance Program that expires this year.
"We're picking winners and losers," LoBiondo said on the House floor. "Why should it be that the concerns of my district and people I represent have any less of an influence than on what happens here."
"I'm sick and tired of having to defend the people of my district and the people of the Northeast from policies that don't mean the right thing for us," he said.
The legislation, which still needs Senate approval, would renew the insurance program for five years, increase premiums for policyholders, and allow the same private insurance companies that administer the program for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to also sell policies in competition with the government.
For those living in houses built before flood areas were mapped, the annual premium increase would be 6.5 percent to 15 percent instead of the current 5 percent to 18 percent.
The maximum premium for primary homes would be $10,000. Homeowners could receive $60,000, up from $30,000, to bring damaged properties up to current standards.
Beginning in 18 months, the bill would prevent homeowners amassing total claims worth three times the replacement value of the damaged structure from obtaining government insurance. The legislation does not include federal funding to update flood maps.
The measure passed, 237-189, with 15 Democrats voting yes and 14 Republicans voting no. Reps. Chris Smith, R-4th Dist., and Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-11th Dist., joined LoBiondo and all seven New Jersey Democratic lawmakers in voting no.
"New Jersey's recovery from that traumatic event has been prolonged, in part, by issues facing the National Flood Insurance Program," said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-6th Dist.
"We need a long-term (National Flood Insurance Program) reauthorization that focuses on increasing affordability, investing in mitigation, capping the profits of the flood insurance companies, and comprehensively restructuring the claims process," Pallone said. "This bill fails that test."
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who has introduced bipartisan legislation in the Senate to overhaul the flood insurance program, said the House bill was the "Republicans' first concrete step towards dismantling a critical program" that serves 227,343 New Jersey households.
"Rather than reform and improve the (flood insurance program) to make premiums more affordable, increase mitigation and make the claims process more fair for policyholders, this bill goes in the opposite direction, raising fees, kicking vulnerable families out of the program, and giving a massive giveaway to the private insurance industry," Menendez said.
Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-3rd Dist., and Leonard Lance, R-7th Dist., were the only New Jersey lawmakers to support the bill.
MacArthur, whose district also includes part of the Jersey Shore, said the legislation addresses the flood insurance program's fiscal issues.
"This program is desperately needed," MacArthur said during debate.
The legislation does little to address the insurance abuses uncovered after Sandy, when FEMA paid out an $350 million extra to homeowners whose original claims were rejected or reduced, critics said.
"We have to apply the lessons that we learned from Superstorm Sandy," said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, director of the New Jersey Organizing Project, an advocacy group founded by Sandy victims. "It doesn't put enough protections in there to make sure some of the things we saw in Sandy don't happen again."
Still, the legislation allows the FEMA administrator to penalize engineering firms and others that falsely adjust claims to avoid paying damages; gives FEMA 90 days, with a 15-day extension if needed, to approve or reject claims; and makes it easier for homeowners to appeal if their claims are denied.
Federal flood insurance is one of the few federal programs that benefits New Jersey more than other states. FEMA has paid $6 billion to property owners in the state from Jan. 1, 1978, through Sept. 30, 2017, more than one-tenth of the $59 billion it has paid out in claims across the country, agency statistics show.
Property owners in Toms River alone received $597 million in payments from Jan. 1, 1978, to Sept. 30, 2017. That was more than the entire state of California, which received $555 million during that period.
LoBiondo, who announced his retirement Nov. 7, said GOP leaders should have accepted modifications, primarily his proposal to lower the annual maximum insurance premium to $5,000 instead of $10,000 for primary residences, and to hold down the proposed surcharges to rebuild the flood insurance's reserve fund.
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