Last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and representatives took on a flawed federal insurance program, one that's shrouded in complexity and threatening policyholders with onerous rate hikes. No, it's not the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). It's the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), the government-backed insurer for people in flood-prone areas. The NFIP is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Naturally, this is a program that affects Louisianans disproportionately — but by no means exclusively. While nearly half a million of us, more than 1 out of every 10 state residents, live in homes required to have flood insurance, the NFIP covers more than 5 million people across the country — including many who previously didn't know they lived in flood zones.
The spiraling rate hikes are a consequence of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, which was co-authored by former U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Illinois, and current U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. The Act was intended to right size and sustain the NFIP, which was created in 1968 to help homeowners in high-risk flood areas obtain flood insurance. Since its inception, the NFIP has racked up a shortfall of about $28 billion, according to published reports, and it's that cumulative shortfall that last year's legislation was supposed to address.
While the aim of Biggert-Waters seemed simple and focused, its impact has been sweeping. The act not only set out to make the NFIP "sustainable" rather than federally subsidized (read: self-supporting via rate hikes), but it also required a massive redrawing of the nation's floodplain maps. Among its consequences: Due to remapping, more property owners than ever before were told they need flood insurance, and many people who had purchased flood insurance for years found their premiums not just rising, not just skyrocketing, but shooting into the stratosphere. South Louisiana falls into the latter category.
Last week, WWL-TV profiled Robert Taylor, a resident of St. Charles Parish whose NFIP policy has typically cost him $400 a year. Under the "reforms" of Biggert-Waters, his new rate will be $15,500 a year. Taylor, who lives on rural Bayou Gauche, said neither he nor his neighbors could afford such rates. Worse yet, that kind of price hike surely will keep them from being able to sell their houses. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told the press that Biggert-Waters has "dried up the real estate market" in his state, while U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, the only Democrat in the Louisiana House delegation, has described Biggert-Waters as the No. 1 problem facing Louisiana.
Critics of a federally subsidized flood insurance program say that the NFIP's below-market rates only help people whose houses flood on a regular basis. They add that any delay in implementing Biggert-Waters is simply kicking the can down the road. They are wrong on both counts, and such arguments miss the point of the NFIP entirely. The NFIP was created, like farm subsidies and corporate tax breaks and many other forms of federal assistance, to help millions of Americans realize — and hold onto — their part of the American Dream. Moreover, the NFIP helps millions of people all across America — from Sacramento to Manhattan, from South Dakota to south Florida — not just people who live in low-lying areas along the Gulf Coast.
In response to growing concerns about the astronomical rate hikes that Biggert-Waters will trigger, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives, including Waters herself (Biggert lost her bid for re-election to a Democrat last year), have united behind the proposed Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act. The proposed law would modify Biggert-Waters and delay some of its changes, including the rate hikes, for up to four years.
Among supporters of the measure are Louisiana's U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, who normally agree on very little. In a statement provided by her office, Landrieu said, "Fixing this flawed piece of legislation is about building a future that Louisiana families can count on, where they can safely and affordably live where they need to work to power the country's economy, keep commerce flowing and produce the products and goods necessary for growth." In addition to Democrat Richmond, the bill has the backing of Louisiana's Republican House members, including Reps. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, and Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette.
We urge all members of Louisiana's congressional delegation to work nonstop to pass this bipartisan measure. It's encouraging to see Democrats and Republicans join forces to pass something that will genuinely make life better for millions of Americans.