Legislation aims to delay Biggert-Waters

by Sam Wilson
Wednesday, January 22, 2014

An amendment to Congress’ recent omnibus spending bill will delay some provisions of the 2012 Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, but some opponents of the reform bill are still hoping Congress will go further to delay the hikes to insurance premiums.

President Obama signed the $1.1 trillion budget bill into law Jan. 17. It includes a measure to delay insurance rate hikes for some flood insurance policyholders until Sept. 30, 2014.

But Wrightsville Beach resident and former alderman Bill Sisson said in a Jan. 21 interview the delay only applies to homeowners whose rates will increase as a result of new flood maps expected later in 2014. Those who are already receiving higher flood insurance bills will not see relief yet, but he said identical measures currently moving through the U.S. House and Senate will implement an across-the-board, four-year delay to the insurance rate hikes.

“Right now it appears there are enough votes to pass the bill in the Senate,” Sisson said. “The big question is whether there are going to be attempts to add hostile amendments. That depends on the unanimous consent to open up the bill currently in play for amendments.”

The Senate is expected to consider the bill when it resumes Jan. 27. But Sisson said the House bill faces stiffer opposition, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a Jan. 16 statement he would not support a repeal of Biggert-Waters. However, Boehner left open the possibility that he would put his support behind less wholesale changes to the law.

Signed into federal law July 6, 2012, Biggert-Waters was an effort to balance the National Flood Insurance Program’s budget, estimated at $25 billion in debt, by phasing out subsidies for some flood insurance policies, creating stiff rate hikes.

And while raising the ire of many coastal communities used to receiving federally subsidized rates on flood insurance, many environmental and small-government groups have voiced opposition to the range of bills introduced in the past 18 months to roll back the 2012 reforms.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy group based in Cambridge, Mass., published multiple studies outlining the budgetary challenges faced by FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). An August 2013 report titled “Overwhelming Risk” concluded  that measures including phasing out insurance premium subsidies and incorporating sea level rise projections into planning and development decisions will be necessary to make the program solvent.

“The insurance rate increases triggered by [Biggert-Waters] are understandably unpopular,” the report concluded. “However, given years of mismanagement of our coastal risks and the prospect of increasing risks from sea level rise, the changes in the act are overdue and are badly needed.”

Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association Executive Director Cameron Moore said Jan. 21 he also expects the Senate to support the bill. His organization has been a vocal critic of Biggert-Waters, and he said he has remained in contact with the local Congressional delegation in urging it to support the two new measures.

“What we’re fighting for, I think, is what needs to happen,” Moore said. “We can come back in and make changes so the [flood insurance] program remains solvent. … But solvency from these increases in the first five years is not where we need to be heading.”

In October 2013, Wrightsville Beach Town Manager Tim Owens said when he checked into an elevation certificate for town hall, he found that the town would see a $15,000 rate increase for the main building alone. WCFHBA has cited homeowners in the Wilmington area facing premium increases as high as $60,000 per year.

In a Jan. 21 interview, Owens said while he was not sure exactly what the effect of the budget amendment will be for Wrightsville property owners, he and other officials would be watching the Senate and House bills closely.

“We’ve done a lot on this issue and I think we’re just watching for it to unfold,” Owens said. “If something happens or doesn’t happen, our board members will be in contact with members of Congress.”

email sam@luminanews.com

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