POLITICS: PennAve

Congress approves bill to ease increases on flood insurance rates

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Congress has passed legislation to halt rate increases in the federal flood insurance program for many homeowners in hazard zones nationwide.

The measure easily cleared the Senate by a vote of 72-22 after the House overwhelmingly approved it last week.

The bill now goes to President Obama, who is expected to sign it.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., called the bill's passage a "huge victory" for his state, which has been hard hit by floods in recent years, particularly from Hurricane Katrina.

"It’s a long-overdue, permanent fix that is also entirely paid for, so the program will be able to sustain itself in the future," he said.

The bill rewrites a much-criticized 2012 law that reformed the federal flood insurance program. Those changes were designed to wean hundreds of thousands of homeowners off subsidized rates and required extensive updating of the flood maps used to set premiums. But its implementation has stirred anxiety among many homeowners along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and in flood plains, many of whom are threatened with unaffordable rate increases.

The bill calls for reinstating a policy of grandfathering-in rates for properties in flood map zones that predate the 2012 reforms. The grandfathering clause includes not only includes current owners but new owners if the property is sold. And it calls for reimbursing homeowners who have paid higher rates under the 2012 law.

The legislation was written by a bipartisan group of lawmakers from flood-battered states including New York, New Jersey and Louisiana who say their constituents have been hit with astronomically high flood insurance bills because of the 2012 law.

"This compromise will give homeowners some peace of mind, assuring them that their flood insurance rates will not immediately soar from several hundred dollars to the thousands and tens of thousands," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

Critics say taxpayers will end up footing the bill for the financial troubled program, which is $24 billion in debt.

"Artificially reducing rates doesn’t reduce risk," said Ryan Alexander, president of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Highly discounting severe loss years does not make their costs disappear."

Chief Congressional Correspondent Susan Ferrechio and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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