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U.S. House overwhelmingly passes flood insurance relief bill

WASHINGTON — The House on Tuesday night voted to undo major provisions of a 2012 law that has caused sharp flood insurance rate increases, signaling possible relief after months of rising tension among home­owners in Florida and other states.

The bill would eliminate a provision of the law that said government-subsidized rates disappear when a person sells a primary home; provide a refund for those who already got hit under that provision; and maintain protections due to sunset for "grandfathered" properties built to code after a community adopted its first Flood Insurance Rate Map.

The legislation still allows FEMA to impose premium increases on homes built before those maps. But the change will be more manageable, bill supporters argued, ranging between 5 and 15 percent on average with a hard cap of 18 percent per year until reaching actuarial risk.

Owners of grandfathered second homes and commercial property would also be spared, but older properties of the same type built before the Flood Insurance Rate Maps are not covered by the legislation and could face significant increases.

Passage of the bill was a rare show of bipartisanship in the typically discordant House. And it came despite significant opposition from conservatives, budget watchdog groups and some environmentalists who said the 2012 reforms were needed to shore up the National Flood Insurance Program, which is more than $24 billion in debt, and to wean people off government subsidies.

The vote was 306-91 with enough Republicans joining Democrats to meet a required two-thirds majority since the bill bypassed the committee process. Every member of the Florida delegation voted yes; Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, missed the vote though supporting the bill.

"Families who were facing massive flood insurance premium increases now can breathe easier," said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, called on the Senate to pass "this critical legislation, which has been endorsed by a broad coalition of homeowners, realtors, home builders and bankers."

The Senate passed a different bill in late January, but sponsors seemed receptive Tuesday to taking up the House legislation. "For the sake of policyholders facing massive rate hikes, I hope we can get a final version sent to the president quickly," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

Opponents of the bill fought throughout the day to keep the 2012 law, known informally as Biggert-Waters, intact. The loss of subsidies, painful as it may be to some, is necessary to keep flood insurance solvent over the long haul, insisted a group of conservatives and environmentalists called the SmarterSafer Coalition.

The group pointed out that the Obama administration has previously opposed delaying the rate hikes, saying it would "further erode the financial position" of the national flood program and "reduce FEMA's ability to pay future claims made by all policyholders."

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the coalition would support a bill that would slow down the rate increases and offer relief to the hardest hit. "This does the exact opposite," he said. "It brings back some of the bad policies of old."

Florida has more subsidized flood insurance policies facing sharp rate hikes than anywhere in the country — 50,000 in Pinellas County alone — and some homeowners are seeing annual increases from $2,000 to $10,000 or more.

The Senate bill largely sought a four-year delay on Biggert-Waters changes. House leaders said they wanted a more permanent fix and also wanted to avoid adding to the insolvency of the National Flood Insurance Program.

The House bill allows annual increases of no more than 18 percent annually per property, down from 20 percent under Biggert-Waters but more than the 12 percent Democrats sought.

Alex Leary can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.