SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 21, 2014

Column: Coastal residents should pay true cost of flood insurance

Taylor Armerding
The Salem News

---- — I hear regularly from my liberal — I mean “progressive” — friends and (mostly) Democratic politicians that one of the only ways to confront climate change effectively is to make people pay the “true cost” of their lifestyle choices — the energy they use and the insistence of some of them on living in harm’s way.

But the environmental champions in Congress took a big break from all that moral scolding this past month with a gigantic “Never mind!” after their constituents discovered the law requiring them to start paying the true cost of living in flood-prone areas.

Never mind that it was Congress that passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act in 2012, calling for property owners in flood zones to stop getting the taxpayer-funded sweetheart deal that lets them enjoy their ocean view while paying insurance at about half the rate they would pay on the open market.

Not surprisingly, people getting that kind of a deal had little incentive to deal with reality. If there was an especially bad storm and their house was damaged or destroyed, why not just rebuild in the same place? Or, why not develop the coastline to the max when your fellow taxpayers are going to absorb most of the risk for you?

Enough of them did, in fact, to put the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) flood insurance program more than $24 billion in debt. Hence the Biggert-Waters Act, passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress, instructing FEMA to phase in rates closer to those charged on the open market.

That began happening early last year, with those owning second homes or on properties that changed hands. The rates were scheduled to rise 25 percent per year until they reached that allegedly crucial “true cost” level. Last October, rate hikes started for owners of properties that had been flooded multiple times and also for business properties in areas at high risk for flooding.

“Were” is the operative word here. The rate hikes prompted an explosion of constituent outrage. And that left members of Congress running for cover from their own legislation. Apparently, claims in your campaign brochures that you’re a warrior against climate change and that you’re not going to enable high-risk behavior for those living in prime coastal areas have to be set aside when the “high risk” turns out to be your own seat in Congress.

The most hilarious scene was Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. — co-sponsor of the bill that bears her name — trying to blame FEMA Director Craig Fugate during a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee for the trouble she had created.

She complained to Fugate that he had failed to let Congress know how much premiums would rise under the bill she co-sponsored, even though the bill specifically called for those increases.

She wrung her hands in faux outrage about the “unconscionable” harm that was being caused to people “placed in this position,” even though she was one of the prime movers to place them in this position.

Apparently, this was yet another law like Obamacare — even the sponsors had to pass it so they could find out what was in it.

This kind of “have-it-both-ways” thinking would be amusing coming from kindergartners. From members of Congress, it is both disturbing and pathetic. Waters and her colleagues want the accolades and endorsements from environmental groups for removing “a market incentive that has encouraged development and destruction of floodplains.” When those homeowners start complaining, however, they want to blame the director of FEMA for failing to tell them what they had done.

Unfortunately, this is a familiar kind of hypocrisy. Our progressive leaders pretend to agree with environmental groups who say the way to keep people from driving more miles every year is to make them pay the true cost of every gallon of gas they burn.

Yet, every time the price of gasoline spikes, no matter what the reason (there is a world market for oil, after all), they rush to blame the greed of oil companies for making obscene profits, somehow forgetting to mention that it is government that makes the most “profit” in taxes from every gallon of fossil fuel, even though it had nothing to do with finding, extracting or refining it.

During the debate on delaying the impact of the flood insurance bill to “study” it some more — which will probably go on indefinitely — some of those who voted to undo what they had done took pains to contend that their coastal constituents were not all that wealthy — an important point to make, you see, because being wealthy is indefensible.

But that is an attempt to duck the reality that those who live on the coast, whether in a primary or second home, have been subsidized for years by those who have never had the chance to live there. How is that fair?

The one good point many of the homeowners have is that the expansion of the so-called “flood plain” needs a major overhaul. It has been expanded to include properties that are at relatively low risk.

But for the rest, where the danger is obvious and flooding has been a regular problem, a taxpayer subsidy makes no sense and is not fair. Those who want to live in harm’s way should be free to do so, but they should also assume the risk.

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Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at t.armerding@verizon.net.