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Legislators say compromise reached in flood insurance bill

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  February 28, 2014 04:32 PM

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Members of the US House of Representatives on Friday reached a tentative compromise on a flood-insurance bill that would benefit thousands of South Shore homeowners, and floor vote is expected in early March, two Massachusetts legislators said.

“We made great progress this week,” said US Representative Stephen Lynch, a South Boston Democrat. “It’s how Congress is supposed to work. We had a proposal on the Republican side that had some gaps in it, we felt, but we went back to them with a counter proposal and a request for some time.”

“The plan should be coming out soon and floor action could be as early as next Tuesday,” US Representative William Keating, a Bourne Democrat, said in a statement.

Lawmakers had planned to vote on Wednesday or Thursday of this week, but the vote was postponed as Democratic groups worked through several amendments.

Though the House version looks very different than the one approved in the Senate in late January, Lynch said he is acting in lock step with US Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

“We would not be signing off on something that we felt our Senate colleagues would be opposed to or offended by,” Lynch said.

The bill looks to augment the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which imposed high flood-insurance premiums for anyone in a flood zone. Legislators said the act was intended to better reflect the cost of coastal flooding and to make the National Flood Insurance Program solvent.

Biggert-Waters was coupled with new Federal Emergency Management Agency maps that expanded the flood zone and raised projected flood levels. The result sharply increased insurance rates for thousands of coastal homeowners in Massachusetts.
Even the owners of some homes miles from the coast saw steep increases in their premiums.

State and federal legislators have since taken up the mantle to effect changes to the law.

Though House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, initially said he would not take up a relief bill, an augmented proposal was brought to the floor in late February.

Lynch didn’t have all the specifics of the revised proposal, but said gaps that excluded some homeowners or business owners has been closed.

The structuring of rate increases was also revised.

Previously, legislators sought to have FEMA take the average of rate increases for a group of homes believed to be at the same risk. That average increase could be no lower than 5 percent, and no higher than 15 percent.

“That was very difficult for us to envision,” Lynch said. “We couldn’t predict what the increases would be, and that’s one of the problems. We proposed a per-policy or per-home increase when we’re trying to gauge what the increases might be.”

Increase limits were kept at a maximum of 15 percent annually; however, the five percent floor limit is still under discussion, Lynch said.

One of the larger changes also includes a provision requiring notification to Congress of potential map changes 60 days before maps are made public.

Lynch said that would allow representatives to walk constituents through changes and also give residents an opportunity for a meaningful appeal of maps.

“In some of my cases, they redrew the maps before they indicated there would be any increase,” Lynch said. “People were sitting back. There was no impetus to file an appeal. It didn’t indicate that rates were going up dramatically. When they did the rate piece, their opportunity for appeal had expired. We have to be better at this in terms of giving people their full rights under the statute.”

Such a problem occurred in Hingham, which voted to file a map appeal Thursday night though the town already voted the new maps into effect two years ago.

Keating added in a phone interview that draft language seeks to give communities a time period where they can check the accuracy of the maps without going through an appeal.

"The major part of the problem was the mapping process. [The bill] will allow the communities to have a period where they can look at the maps and have a period to react to that," Keating said. "They won't have to go through an expensive appeals process unnecessarily."

Grandfathering would also be added back in, Keating said.

Keating noted that the draft language could change even overnight, and nothing was solidified until the bill was in a complete form.

If the full House approves a bill that differs from the Senate’s, the two bills would go to conference committee to iron out the differences. Both chambers would then vote the bill up or down to be sent to the president.

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