Merged legislation to extend federal highway and national flood insurance programs reflects the influence of U.S. Senators Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who worked to support and incorporate provisions that will have important benefits for Mississippi and the nation.
Cochran and Wicker on Friday voted for legislation that combines the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (HR.4348/S.1813 or MAP-21), a two-year surface transportation reauthorization bill, and the Flood Insurance Reauthorization Bill (S.1940), a five-year reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The overall measure also includes provisions to extend a lower interest rate on federal student loans for another year. The bill passed the Senate on a 74-19 vote. It will be sent to the White House.
"Renewing the federal highway bill is important in and of itself to Mississippi, but changes we've made in the bill should bring greater fairness and resources to any area threatened by hurricanes or flooding. It should provide more regulatory and economic certainty for states, communities, the business sector and property owners," Cochran said. "A lot of credit goes to work by Senator Wicker and our House delegation for pushing for inclusion of the RESTORE Act and other provisions in this package. I look forward to its passage and enactment."
"Both of these pieces of legislation -- the highway bill and the flood insurance reauthorization -- are important for Mississippi's economy," said Wicker. "The highway bill ensures that needed repairs to our nation's infrastructure can continue, and a five-year flood insurance plan should provide certainty to homeowners. Congress needs to address several significant challenges over the coming months. The bipartisan cooperation that led to this package should be an outline for future work."
Within the highway reauthorization bill, Cochran and Wicker worked to include provisions of the RESTORE the Gulf Coast Act that outlines post-oil spill ecological and economic recovery benefits for Gulf Coast states. The package also contains Wicker's COASTAL Act legislation to more accurately determine water loss damages following natural disasters like hurricanes.
The NFIP reauthorization legislation completely strikes out burdensome Senate Banking Committee provisions that would have required exorbitant insurance purchases and land-use restrictions within all areas protected by levees regardless of the protections the levees provide. Last fall, Cochran and Senator Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) had raised concerns about these new mandates, and Cochran worked with the Committee to address those problems. Virtually the entire Mississippi Delta, much of the Jackson metro area and communities along the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway in northeast Mississippi rely on properly-designed and maintained flood control structures.
Below are brief summaries of the provisions on which Wicker and Cochran worked to include or improve during the development of this legislative package:
The final highway reauthorization bill retains the RESTORE Act, which the Senate added to the bill in March. Like the original bill cosponsored by Cochran and Wicker, the Senate's RESTORE Act amendment follows the recommendations from Gulf Coast restoration groups and establishes a Gulf Coast Restoration Fund to provide Gulf Coast states--Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and Texas--with 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines related to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. These funds will be available for locally-directed restoration projects.
The remaining 20 percent of the fines paid by BP and other parties held responsible for the April 2010 oil spill would be directed to the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.
"Inclusion of the RESTORE Act in this bill is a significant benefit for Mississippi, and I am pleased we were able to work together on this bill. The economic and ecological damage caused by the tragic 2010 oil spill will be with us for many years," Cochran said. "Mississippi will now have access to resources that will restore ecosystems, livelihoods and development in Mississippi and the other affected states."
Wicker added, "The RESTORE Act is a significant achievement for the Gulf Coast, directing funds from Clean Water Act fines to the communities that were impacted directly. Had Congress failed to act, these funds, which are paid by BP, would have gone to the Treasury. Now, they can be used for important recovery efforts."
Wicker, who serves on the Senate Banking Committee, gained approval to include provisions from his COASTAL Act in S.1940 as the committee developed the NFIP reauthorization bill last fall. The COASTAL Act (Title III of the Manager's substitute) would use hurricane data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in conjunction with engineering formulas to be developed by FEMA to accurately assess flood insurance claims for total-loss, "slab" properties.
Use of the COASTAL formula will help prevent the inappropriate shifting of wind claims to the NFIP program and will empower consumers by providing a better estimation of water losses.
"Homeowners will have easy access to useful data from NOAA and FEMA because of the COASTAL Act," said Wicker. "A scientific approach will benefit homeowners and taxpayers. This is an important step to ensuring NFIP can make correct determinations following a major hurricane."
Cochran supports the final version of the NFIP reauthorization legislation that strikes Banking Committee provisions that would have nullified most of the reduction in risk provided by levees nationwide. By removing this language which Cochran had worked to mitigate, the final bill will stop the one-size-fits-all approach taken in the legislation crafted by the Senate Banking Committee to require flood insurance and to impose land-use restrictions in areas protected by sound and well-maintained levee systems.
"This legislation removes the threat of new insurance mandates and land-use restrictions for those whose lives and livelihoods are protected by levees. This outcome preserves how things stand now while offering the protections needed in a long-term reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program," Cochran said.