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House Panel Backs Federal Subsidy for Hurricane Recovery

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday approved by voice-vote legislation that would authorize a complete federal subsidy for certain Federal Emergency Management Agency recovery efforts related to hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Since July 2006, FEMA had adjusted the federal share to 90 percent, leaving states to pick up the balance. The bill would increase the federal share to 100 percent.

As originally drafted by House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita Federal Match Relief Act of 2007 (H.R. 1144), would have exempted Louisiana and Mississippi from making up the costs not covered by FEMA. As amended, it also would provide a full federal subsidy for FEMA-approved recovery efforts related to Hurricane Rita in Texas and Hurricane Wilma in Florida.

The panel approved by voice vote an amendment by Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) that added Texas to the exemption list. A subsequent proposal by Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) to add Florida to that list was approved by voice vote.

“When you add Texas to the part of the agreement, you should also include Florida,” Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the panel’s ranking member said. “What’s fair for the goose is good for the gander.”

The measure also would restore FEMA’s authority to cancel loans under the Community Disaster Loan Program. Established in the 109th Congress, the Community Disaster Loan Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-88) authorized loans to local governments for recovery from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The program authorized loans up to $1 billion in loans waived the $5 million per loan limit. Under current law those loans cannot be canceled. The bill would allow FEMA to cancel loans to local governments if revenues in the three years following the disaster fall below funds outlined in the operating budget.

The committee also approved by voice vote a substitute amendment offered by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, (D-D.C.), that would clarify that community disaster loans authorized under emergency supplemental appropriations (P.L. 109-234) are eligible for cancellation.

Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.) offered, but later withdrew, an amendment that would have directed the president to make contributions to local governments, including those outside the federally declared disaster area, for repairing public facilities damaged by use in during hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The provision would affect Louisiana’s Superdome, which housed some 14,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Baker said he would address the issue on the floor.

Highway Bill Corrections

The panel also approved by voice vote a measure that would make technical corrections to the Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act (P.L. 109-59), which authorized $244.1 billion for federal surface transportation programs including highways, highway safety and transit between fiscal 2005 and 2009.

H.R. 1195, sponsored by Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.), would correct errors in funding calculations for the transportation research program authorized by SAFETEA-LU, resulting in lower-than-intended funding levels.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) said the bill was the only “real” positive piece of legislation the panel completed in the 109th Congress. He said it was important that they make the corrections so that there is no doubt about what they meant.

The panel did adopt by voice vote a manager’s amendment offered by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) that would make a number of minor changes to member projects included in the bill. Among the clarifications is language that would designate that of the $20 million authorized for a new American border plaza near Port Huron, $12.6 million would be authorized for highway realignment to eliminate road blockage at Port Huron. The other $7.4 million would go towards construction.

Mica pointed out that one provision in the law inadvertently changed regulation requirements for trucks weighing less than 10,000 pounds. Mica said the provision prevents the Transportation Department from issuing proper safety regulations.

Oberstar said he would work with Mica on the issue before the bill reaches the House floor.

Separately, Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.) offered an amendment that would have granted Arizona additional “funding flexibility.” Mitchell agreed to withdraw the measure after Oberstar noted that the language would go beyond the legal confines of SAFETEA-LU.

Water Quality

The panel gave its voice-vote approval to the Water Quality Financing Act (H.R. 720), which would reauthorize the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which would provide $14 billion over four years for loans to water pollution-abatement projects.

The committee originally reported the bill favorably, by a vote of 55-13, to the House floor on Feb. 7. However, preliminary analysis of the measure by the Congressional Budget Office found that the measure would reduce federal revenues, subjecting it to “pay-as-you-go” budgeting rules that require Congress to pay for any tax cuts with offsetting tax increases or spending cuts.

To correct the scoring issue, Oberstar moved to reconsider reporting the measure and offered a substitute amendment — approved today by voice vote — that would strike the fiscal 2012 authorization for the fund. As originally drafted, the measure would have authorized $20 billion over a five-year period.

“I’m sad to see H.R. 720 again, but we do have to live by the rules we adopted,” Mica said.

Oberstar’s amendment also would decrease the duties on Vessel Tonnages, imposed on cargo-carrying capacity of vessels entering the U.S. from foreign ports, as well as those departing from and returning to U.S. ports. The fees are intended to offset costs of U.S. Coast Guard activities that benefit such vessels, including navigation. Reducing the duties sets them back to levels in effect in the 1990s. The increase that Congress authorized in 1990 was based on the change in the Consumer Price Index from 1915 to 1990.

The bill also offers states increased flexibility in the financing packages they can offer to cities and local communities, including principal forgiveness, negative interest loans and other financing mechanisms that may be necessary to assist communities in meeting their water quality infrastructure goals.

Additionally, the committee approved five other bills naming federal buildings (H.R. 753, H.R. 735, H.R. 1019, H.R. 1045, H.R. 1138) as well as a resolution authorizing $123 million for construction on a courthouse in Buffalo, N.Y., and the panel’s views and estimates on the fiscal 2008 budget concerning programs under the panel’s jurisdiction.

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