WASHINGTON — The changes forcing steep flood insurance rate hikes in Florida and other states got through Congress by hitching a ride on a much bigger bill. Now lawmakers see salvation in the same tactic, by attaching a fix to must-pass legislation.
A bipartisan group of senators said Tuesday that they would try to amend a fix to the National Defense Authorization Act, up for debate this week.
"We need to get this legislation amended onto it and get it signed into law," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., noting the state has 40 percent of all flood policies.
Under the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act, rates would be frozen four years for some properties until FEMA completes an affordability study and assures Congress that new flood mapping is accurate.
But there is no guarantee the amendment will be approved. Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, spoke Tuesday about the need to clear away scores of amendments to the defense bill and said he was unaware of the flood effort.
A House committee hearing on the issue exposed conflicting views about the need to reverse 2012 legislation intended to shore up the National Flood Insurance Program.
"Its ability to be responsive in case of natural disaster and flooding is to have a program that is physically sound," said Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, chair of the Financial Services Committee's subcommittee on housing and insurance.
Neugebauer said some of the stories about ill-effects are due to "misinformation" and "aren't necessarily true."
Facing the panel was FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, who tried to strike a middle ground, saying his agency would work with Congress to address some of the problems but cautioning that subsidizing risk going forward was not feasible.
"You can't argue with this: We are $24 billion in debt," said Fugate, the former Florida director of emergency management.
The 2012 legislation, which went into effect Oct. 1, raises rates for owners of older properties in flood zones that were built before flood maps went into effect and that have been subsidized with lower rates.
Only about 20 percent of all flood policies are subsidized. But Florida has more than any other state; Pinellas County, with more than 50,000 subsidized policies, is the most impacted county in the country.
For most, subsidies are being phased out with annual rate increases near 20 percent.
"I don't think anybody expected the sticker shock," Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, said before the House hearing. "We have to deal with this. This was a problem created over the last 40 years of government subsidies allowing for a moral hazard to occur, and that's the building in high risk places with subsidized insurance. Now all of a sudden it's like wanting to lose weight overnight and you cut off a limb instead of transitioning."
The bipartisan group sees the defense authorization bill as the most expedient course to fixing the problem.
If an amendment is successful, the overall bill would move to the House.
"The nearly 500,000 flood insurance policyholders in Louisiana and 5.5 million across the nation cannot wait any longer for a solution to skyrocketing flood insurance rates," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a sponsor.
The amendment sponsors also include Nelson, Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., David Vitter, R-La., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Thad Cochran, R-Miss., Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Noticeably missing is Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who had joined a news conference last month announcing the standalone bill but has since kept a distance from the group.
A spokeswoman, Brooke Sammon, said the fix being developed is "an encouraging proposal and Sen. Rubio still hopes to make significant improvements to this legislation to add further protections for Floridians and ensure it doesn't create longer term problems that will eventually hit people even harder."
She would not elaborate.
Times staff writer Jeff Harrington contributed to this report.