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Federal disaster relief squabble may impact Kansas and Missouri

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, at 6:25 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, at 6:40 a.m.

Midwesterners accustomed to generous government aid after ice storms, floods and tornadoes may soon have to look somewhere else for help when disaster strikes.

Even as the U.S. House on Tuesday passed a $50.7 billion aid package for victims of the Northeast’s Hurricane Sandy, local members of Congress said future federal disaster assistance — even in their own backyards — should be stopped unless other government spending is cut to pay for the aid.

“The days of just spending money outside the budget ... have got to come to an end,” said Rep. Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican. “We have to find ways to pay for that stuff. That’s all there is to it.”

But finding cuts to pay for every disaster would be a major change in U.S. policy, and politically explosive.

Tuesday’s Sandy aid package, for example, included roughly $12 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the nation’s primary conduit for disaster response. Since 2004, taxpayers have sent more than $80 billion to FEMA for various disasters, virtually none of it offset by other spending cuts.

That pattern continued Tuesday when a proposal to cut spending to pay for some of the Sandy package failed. It was the latest, piecemeal effort to offset disaster spending with cuts elsewhere.

Local members of Congress say they aren’t giving up.

Less than two weeks ago, Graves — and all four House members from Kansas — sided with a small minority voting against the initial installment of Sandy spending. That would allot $9.7 billion for the National Flood Insurance Program to pay hurricane claims. They said their opposition was based partly on the lack of offsetting cuts to other federal programs.

“We have to talk seriously about offsets,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican, said after the vote.

Those votes infuriated members of Congress from the Northeast, of both parties, and their constituents. They said spending cuts weren’t required after Joplin’s tornado or Hurricane Katrina, and shouldn’t be needed for Sandy.

“Maybe there is a bias against the northeastern states of this country,” said Rep. Albio Sires, a New Jersey Democrat.

“People are bitter,” said Michael Dominowski, a writer and editor at the Staten Island Advance in New York. In a column, he noted past support for tornado and flood relief in Kansas and other states by northeastern members of Congress.

Indeed, records show Kansas and Missouri among the states most dependent on federal disaster relief. They could have much to lose if disaster spending came only after offsets with other budget cuts.

From 2004 to 2011, the Government Accountability Office found, Kansas took more than $1.2 billion in relief for natural disasters. That’s roughly as much as New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and Delaware — combined. Connecticut alone has a larger population than Kansas.

Most of that cash went to local governments to defray the costs of cleanup and rebuilding that might ordinarily fall on local taxpayers. It includes $40 million spent to help residents of Greensburg, Kan., after a 2007 tornado destroyed most of the community.

On a per-person basis, the GAO said, Kansas ranked ninth nationally in federal disaster spending, ahead of hurricane-plagued Texas and far ahead of New York and California.

That’s just for disasters like severe storms and snow.

Kansas also received roughly $618 million over the same period for farm-related disasters such as drought- and storm-damaged crops, according to a database compiled by the Environmental Working Group. Some of that spending went to relatives of Huelskamp, the 1st District Republican who opposed the Sandy relief bill.

Since 1995, the Environmental Working Group says, farmers just in Huelskamp’s sprawling district have taken nearly $891 million in federal disaster payments. None of that federal spending was specifically offset by cuts to other parts of the budget.

Huelskamp did not respond to a request for an interview Tuesday.

In a statement Monday, the budget critic said he did not oppose all disaster relief.

“Disasters happen, and many times there is a role for Washington to respond,” Huelskamp’s statement said. “But that does not mean we put on the blindfolds and pray that the money gets where it needs to go.”

Less than a week ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared virtually every Kansas county a federal drought disaster area. That qualified residents for low-cost emergency loans and other federal relief.

Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, who also voted against the Sandy bill in early January, did not respond to several requests for an explanation of his vote. A spokeswoman for Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a Kansas Republican, said the congresswoman voted no because of a need for flood insurance reform.

In an earlier statement, Jenkins said unneeded spending should be cut from the relief package and offset with other spending cuts.

Kansas Democrats criticized the early January votes.

“We have had our handouts for the last 10 years with disaster relief,” said Democratic state party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon. “It flies in the face of reasonableness that you would stick your hand out for more money than most states get, and then refuse to help someone else.”

Seven of Missouri’s eight House members — Graves being the lone exception — voted for the $9.7 billion Sandy flood bill in early January, including Rep. Billy Long, whose district includes Joplin, which was ravaged by a tornado in 2011 and received hundreds of millions in federal aid.

Records show Missouri received more than $1 billion disaster relief from 2004 through 2011. Missouri ranked 19th in per-person disaster spending during that period.

The state also got $240 million in those years for farm-related disasters, including roughly $95 million in Graves’ district.

Some landowners also got disaster help after the 2011 Missouri River flood, but “those were offset,” Graves said.

But during Tuesday’s debate on an additional $50.7 billion for Sandy relief, even some Republicans criticized Midwestern opposition to the relief package.

“It would be hypocritical, in my view, to fail to do for people in the affected region what I and I know many others have routinely asked for our own regions,” said Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma. Republicans from northeastern states made similar statements.

Democrats from the Northeast were equally blunt.

“I plead with my colleagues not to have a double standard,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York. “Tornado relief to Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri ... Ike, Gustav, Katrina, Rita. But when it comes to the Northeast ... delay, delay, delay.”

An amendment requiring the second part of the Sandy aid package be offset by other federal spending reductions was defeated.

Conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation urged votes against the Sandy relief packages. They warned the votes would be used to score members’ adherence to conservative principles.

“This vote is indeed an opportunity for lawmakers in Congress to demonstrate fiscal responsibility,” Heritage said. “Faced with another trillion-dollar deficit, adding tens of billions of dollars to our national debt is reckless.”

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