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Broad $60.4B Sandy relief bill criticized as 'pork'
Thursday January 3, 2013, 11:00 PM
BY MICHAEL LINHORST AND MELISSA HAYES
STATE HOUSE BUREAU
In more than 100 pages of legislation detailing the $60 billion disaster aid plan Congress considered, there’s almost no mention of specific projects: no order to rebuild the sand dunes in Belmar that washed away. No earmark to fix the breached berm in the Meadowlands that flooded Moonachie and Little Ferry. No direct payment for the thousands left homeless.
Instead, the versions that passed between the House and Senate laid out the spending in broad terms. Replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s budget; allocate funds for the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild beaches and channels destroyed by superstorm Sandy; repair damaged roads, bridges and railroad infrastructure; and fund disaster relief and long-term housing needs through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Those broad, unspecified categories — as well as a Senate bill that once included $400 million for projects like a new roof on the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and funding for fisheries in Alaska — allowed critics in Congress and elsewhere to claim the aid package is laden with “pork,” or unnecessary spending.
For anyone reading the bill language, it’s unclear exactly what projects would get funded. But members of Congress who have supporting documents say the money would go to things like repairing the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and to national fish hatcheries.
“There’s a lot of money that isn’t going to New Jersey, and a significant amount that isn’t even going to New York,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Some conservative members of Congress have also taken issue with funds to mitigate future damage, such as engineering the beaches at the Jersey Shore, to rebuild them better than they were before.
Governor Christie, who said he called between 30 and 40 House members Monday and Tuesday to muster support for the full $60 billion, defended those allocations.
“What I’m saying to some of the members is, is the rebuilding of the beach mitigation or is it restoration? It depends on the eyes of the beholder, I guess, but to me, you can’t responsibly rebuild unless and until you know you’re going to have a right to have a barrier at the beach,” Christie said Wednesday. “And so, then, how high do you build? How far back do you build? All of that is dependent upon what the Shore looks like. And so that may be mitigation to some, but to me it’s restoration to what it was before or made better so you can make wise types of investment decisions on how to rebuild private property and governmental property from there.”
The original aid bill derailed late Tuesday, shocking lawmakers who were promised a vote that night, outraging Republicans and Democrats alike and provoking Governor Christie to say the “toxic internal politics of the House majority” was prolonging the suffering of devastated New Jerseyans. An hour after Christie publicly blamed House Speaker John Boehner, the House leader met with members of the New Jersey and New York delegation, announcing soon after that an agreement was reached.
Now the newly reorganized House of Representatives is expected to vote Friday, but only to approve $9.7 billion to fund a federal flood insurance program that would have run out of money next week and delayed payments on more than 115,000 claims.
The remainder of the aid package, about $51 billion, is split between two House bills that are scheduled for a vote Jan. 15. If approved, and all three measures have Boehner’s support, they go the Senate for consideration.
The latest House measures were promised by Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor after they met with representatives from New York and New Jersey for about 30 minutes.
After the Senate approved the aid in one bill, the House took a different approach and was set to consider two separate measures Tuesday.
The first — a $27 billion bill signed off on by House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers — covered immediate needs: the $9.7 billion for the national flood insurance program; $5.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund to help individuals, families and communities in impacted areas; $5.4 billion for the federal Department of Transportation, which would fund Port Authority and NJ Transit recovery efforts; and $3.9 billion for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to make repairs to publicly owned hospitals, local roads, and utilities and small businesses.
The second — which was expected to pass by a more narrow margin — crafted by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-Morris, called for $33 billion for flexible community block grants and transportation, flood control and beach protection projects.
As of Thursday, Frelinghuysen had released a detailed breakdown of the $33 billion amendment he sponsored, but said it would fund longer-term recovery efforts and infrastructure improvements. His spokesman said the $27 billion and $33 billion measures were being reworked Thursday to reflect today’s expected vote on $9.7 billion for flood insurance and he could not release specifics. Both of the reworked bills would be on the agenda Jan. 15.
The House removed the $400 million from the two bills it was set to consider Tuesday night after completing a vote on tax cuts as part of the fiscal cliff deal.
The bill that passed in the Senate also included $287 million to repair national parks, including the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, as well as national fish hatcheries and wildlife refuges along the East Coast.
It called for $235 million to repair and reconstruct the Manhattan Veterans Affairs hospital and other facilities that were severely flooded; $161 million for the Small Business Administration’s disaster loan program, which offers low-interest financing to repair and rebuild private property, including homes, rental properties and businesses; $100 million for public health and social services programs affected by the storm; $24.2 million to repair Army National Guard buildings damaged by the storm; and $6 million for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to restock food banks and soup kitchens in affected areas.
Rogers’ bill also included $1.35 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers to restore beaches and other infrastructure damaged by Sandy to pre-storm conditions. The legislation also directed the corps to submit plans for reducing future flooding and to dredge navigation channels.
That dredging was included in a list put out by Taxpayers for Common Sense detailing what it says is “pork” included in the legislation.
Ellis, of the taxpayers group, said the bill includes significant amounts of spending on projects unrelated to Sandy recovery, including $200 million for an Amtrak project on its Northeast Corridor rail line and new funding for Housing and Urban Development projects. He said the bill moved through the Senate too fast for lawmakers to scrutinize its contents.
“Part of the interest in moving these things relatively quickly is they don’t stand up to scrutiny very well,” he said.
Rogers said in a statement that the bill he released would provide “immediate relief, while also beginning the process of meeting long-term recovery needs.”
Christie has estimated it will cost $36.9 billion for New Jersey to rebuild and recover from the storm, a figure that includes $7.4 billion in “mitigation and prevention costs,” which have not been detailed publicly.
The governor on Wednesday said he sent supporting documentation to members of Congress, some of whom many not favor mitigation projects, like engineered beaches, but added no one has questioned the state’s request.
“There are some that have a philosophical point of view that some of the things in the package should never be involved in disaster relief, not questioning the validity of our numbers, they questioned the philosophical approach as to whether that’s something that should be included in disaster relief,” Christie said. “Other than that $400 million, no one has come back to us and said our numbers are wrong, bad, inflated or cooked.”
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