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US Senate approval of flood-insurance relief is hailed in Scituate

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  January 30, 2014 05:21 PM

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A federal bill set to delay the impact of new flood insurance regulations was approved by a solid majority in the US Senate on Thursday, giving hope to coastal homeowners worried about spikes in their premiums.

The bill, which still requires approval by the US House and the president, would give primary homeowners a four-year delay from the federal Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which would cause flood insurance premiums to skyrocket.

“I’m most excited about is our two little towns, Marshfield and Scituate … we were the first to recognize [the problematic flood insurance bill] and were the tip of the spear,” said State Representative Jim Cantwell in a phone interview. “It was uncertain if we could change federal policy. People say it would take an act of Congress. There was a sense it would be too difficult.”

Despite the hurdles, Cantwell said the two towns were successful in bringing both of the state's US senators to the district to hear about the local impact. The relief bill received support of 67 senators on Thursday, while 32 voted against the measure.

“We are obviously pleased that not only our community, or the Commonwealth recognized the need to revisit the impacts of Biggert-Waters, but multiple states and jurisdictions throughout the country and are very grateful for the tremendous effort so many individuals put into this issue to raise awareness.,” said Scituate Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi.

The House process is the next step, and if that chamber passes a version that differs from the Senate bill, both sides will have to go to conference to negotiate a revised document. That version will have to be approved by both chambers before being sent to the president.

"I urge the House to take up and pass this bill without delay,” said US Senator Elizabeth Warren in a statement. “I'm committed to working with my colleagues to make sure that families who played by the rules can stay in their homes."

Yet Speaker of the House John Boehner, the only person able to bring bills to the floor for vote, has said he won't take up the bill.

"There is no reason why House Leadership should not take it up as soon as we come back into session on Monday; it is the only responsible and democratic course of action on an issue that affects so many lives across the country," said U.S. Rep Bill Keating in a statement.

Additionally, the President’s Office of Management and Budget issued a statement in opposition to the relief bill, due to its financial implications in the National Flood Insurance program, Cantwell said.

“They aren’t in any way twisting our arm, but they are concerned about the four years if there is not a fix that’s done,” Cantwell said.

The bill approved by the Senate not only offers a delay in flood insurance hikes, but also requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency to complete an affordability study of the Biggert-Waters mandate. The bill also asks that FEMA propose solutions to address affordability issues before insurance premiums can be raised in the future.

Funds must also be provided to reimburse homeowners that file successful map appeals, make publicly available data that provide the basis for the premium hikes, allow premium payments in monthly installments, and include completed mitigation activities when determining risk and subsequent premium rates.

David Ball, a member of Scituate’s Coastal Coalition, welcomed the Senate vote, but said the bill still leaves many in murky waters, including those that own secondary homes – such as vacation homes, businesses, and homes that have had severe, repetitive losses. None of those categories would receive the bill’s protection.

“The bottom line is it’s a big first step, but it’s not going to fix everything,” Ball said. “My concern is the public will read about the passage and think it’s all passed and fixed. There are a lot of issues that haven’t been addressed.”

Ball also said a four-year delay is helpful only if solutions are at the end of it.

“A four-year delay, unless they truly look at the affordability issue, all they are doing is kicking the can down the road. It still puts the real estate industry in limbo for an extended period of time,” he said.

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