Calif. lawmaker’s bill would try to speed up disaster cleanups and repairs

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 14, 2013 

— Sophomore Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif. started his second term in the spotlight Monday, as he shepherded a disaster relief bill through a House that sometimes stumbles over the topic.

Seizing an opportunity in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Denham recast as the “Sandy Recovery Improvement Act” a previously written package that streamlines Federal Emergency Management Agency operations. But unlike other post-Sandy efforts, including some initiated by one of Denham’s San Joaquin Valley colleagues, this one sidesteps Capitol Hill controversy.

“It’s a bipartisan bill, one with everyone on the same page,” Denham said.

The House legislation is supposed to improve how FEMA responds to natural disasters and other emergencies. The 29-page bill speeds environmental reviews for hazard mitigation projects, simplifies debris removal and authorizes the agency to repair homes as an alternative to leasing trailers for temporary housing, among other steps.

Despite its title, the legislation is not specifically targeted at the East Coast communities ravaged by Sandy last October. Instead, it is a national bureaucracy fix similar to one that passed the House last September, but then ran out of time in the Senate. Denham indicated Monday that he believes all potential issues have been negotiated.

“We’ve been tackling this issue, based on a number of different recovery efforts,” Denham said.

Denham’s bill comes courtesy of his chairmanship during the last Congress of the House subcommittee that oversees FEMA and federal buildings. It arose Monday under House procedures designed for non-controversial measures, unlike a higher-profile Sandy relief bill set for House consideration Tuesday.

The larger House package being debated Tuesday comes out of a different committee, and includes some $50 billion for disaster relief. It has also caused grief for some House conservatives.

Unlike Denham’s bill, written to pass quickly without revision, House members proposed about 90 amendments to the separate Sandy relief bill. Some will put lawmakers on the spot on whether they want to offset the Sandy spending with cuts elsewhere. This could prove a particular test for freshmen members like Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., who now sits on the House Appropriations Committee, which will oversee for the Sandy relief bill.

“I know how important the supplemental relief is to those affected by Hurricane Sandy, but I believe we can provide that relief while finding ways to pay for it, rather than adding to the nation’s ballooning deficit,” said Rep. Mike Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican who authored some of the amendments.

In a similar vein, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif. whose new district includes Calaveras, Tuolumne, Madera and Mariposa counties, is pushing his own amendments that include stripping out $16 billion designed to aid the 47 states that have had a designated major disaster declaration since 2011. In California, this would cut out funding for Del Norte and Santa Cruz counties, hit by a tsunami in 2011.

McClintock’s amendment would also have the effect of cutting out disaster funding for Madera, Mariposa and Tulare counties, which were among 12 California counties included in a 2011 major disaster declaration following winter storms. Though its long-term prospects appear bleak, the amendment does send a message some conservatives share.

“The amendments the congressman will offer are to ensure that the money is actually going to meet emergency needs, not funding long-term spending programs or special-interest projects,” McClintock's spokeswoman Jennifer Cressy said.

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