Congress

Federal aid headed to Missouri, Kansas as disaster bill passes after weeks of delay

Communities in Kansas and Missouri ravaged by floods and tornadoes will be getting much needed federal relief dollars now that Congress has approved a $19 billion disaster aid bill after weeks of delay.

The U.S. House passed the bill Monday evening with a wide bipartisan majority, 354 to 58. The bill, which passed the Senate last month, now heads to President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature.

Trump has already approved disaster declarations for both Missouri and Kansas following weeks of devastating flooding in the Midwest. Passage will allow federal aid into communities in the Kansas City region recovering from the one-two punch of floods and recent tornadoes.

“We’ve all felt the pain as floodwaters have overtopped or punched through levees, inundating homes, businesses, and farms,” said Rep. Sam Graves, who was the only Missouri Republican to support an earlier version of the bill last month.

This time around every Missouri lawmaker supported the bill regardless of party.

Rep. Ron Estes, a Wichita Republican, was one of 58 Republicans to vote against the bill and the only Kansan in either the House or Senate to oppose it. Estes pointed to the dollar figure and the fact that the final bill doesn’t include additional border security dollars sought by Trump.

“Helping communities recover is critical and what should have been a unanimously bipartisan and clean disaster aid bill ballooned to 19 billion unbudgeted dollars that will be tacked onto our national debt, without adequately addressing specific disasters in Kansas and ignoring the crisis on our border,” Estes said in a statement explaining his vote.

The Club for Growth, an influential conservative advocacy group, had urged lawmakers to oppose bill hours before the vote.

Seven of the 17 counties in Estes’ district are currently under federal disaster declarations, including Butler and Sumner counties which are adjacent to Wichita. The bill doesn’t explicitly earmark funding for Kansas disasters, but it includes specific provisions intended to help Midwestern states affected by flooding and will make federal aid available to both Kansas and Missouri.

Before casting his vote in support of the bill, Rep. Steve Watkins, R-Kansas, pointed out that 17 of the 25 counties in his district, which stretches from Northeast Kansas to the Oklahoma border, were under disaster declarations because of floods or tornadoes.

The measure includes $4.5 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to repair flood-damaged farmlands, rebuild infrastructure in rural communities and to compensate farmers who lost crops to floods or other disasters, including wildfires in California and hurricanes in the Carolinas.

The legislation includes a provision, championed by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, that expands this program to cover crops that have been stored, something farmers are doing at a higher rate in the face of trade tensions with China and other nations.

Blake Hurst, the president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, applauded the bill’s passage and emphasized that farmers in the region are bracing for more floods in the coming weeks.

“Over the past few months, Missouri’s farmers and ranchers have endured record-breaking flooding causing loss of on-farm stored grain, property, and equipment,” Hurst said in an email.

“The waters continue to rise, and we expect that more damage is to come. This crucial funding will help farmers, ranchers, and rural communities recover from events that are truly out of their control,” Hurst said. “We look forward to the President’s approval of this bill as quickly as possible.”

Trey Garst, a 26-year-old farmer from Atchison County, Mo., said 22,000 bushels of yellow corn on his family-owned farm near Watson became drenched with water and then rotted in the hot sun. It represented an $88,000 loss, said Garst, who noted that many of his neighbors suffered even bigger financial losses.

”There’s a lot of guys that need this bill because they are going to need something to keep them afloat,” Garst said.

In addition to aid for farmers, the bill provides $1.6 billion for the Department of Transportation to repair roads and bridges, $2.4 billion for grants to cities and counties recovering from disasters and $3 billion for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repair waterways, a key component for flood-plagued Midwestern states.

The legislation was held up first because of a dispute between President Trump and Democrats over aid to Puerto Rico, still recovering from a 2017 hurricane.

The Senate passed the bill last month after Trump and Democratic leaders reached a compromise. But it was blocked in the House by three GOP lawmakers who objected to approval by unanimous consent during last week’s legislative break.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, lamented the holdup on federal aid to disaster-struck communities.

“It’s extremely frustrating that we couldn’t get it passed last week, or even months ago, before the levee breaches and additional flooding that occurred in my district just yesterday,” Cleaver said Monday.

The legislation passed easily once the full Democratic-controlled House reconvened Monday.

The Kansas City Star’s Crystal Thomas and Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.
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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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