Senators say no to storm aid — after their states received it

In the acrimonious dispute unfolding in Washington over the Hurricane Sandy relief bill, one of the most contentious requests is for money to shore up afflicted cities and towns against future disaster.

Republican opponents have blasted the idea. In a December statement, Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) slammed $12.9 billion in so-called hazard mitigation funding that Democratic sponsors had included in the bill “without identifying a single way to pay for it.”

As the aid bill moves toward a promised vote in the Republican-majority House, the hazard mitigation money is likely to remain a target for attack. Yet since 1989, states represented by senators who voted against the package have been among the biggest beneficiaries of a similar pot of money: the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which nationwide has provided at least $8 billion to help states recovering from disasters prepare to face future catastrophe.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) joined colleague John McCain to decry federal funding to prevent future storm damage, part of the Sandy aid package that passed the Senate and awaits consideration in the House. His state has received $51 million under a similar program. Photo: Talk Radio News Service

Since Coburn took office in 2005, his home state of Oklahoma has been awarded some $51 million in hazard mitigation money, mostly in the wake of tornadoes and winter storms. Per capita, the Sooner State ranks 14th in the nation for spending under the program, according to data released by FEMA.

Oklahoma’s money included more than $400,000 for Coburn’s home city of Muskogee, for generator power and saferooms to protect against tornadoes. His office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Arizona has pulled in some $13.5 million in hazard mitigation grants since 1989; McCain took office in 1987.

The top five spenders of the FEMA money per capita are Louisiana, North Dakota, Iowa, Mississippi, and South Dakota. New York State has received some $380 million, much of it for recovery following 9/11.

Both Republican senators from Missisippi and one from Louisiana — no strangers to hurricanes’ destruction — were among those who voted with Democrats for passage of the aid bill.

The FEMA program pledges between 7.5 and 15 percent of federal post-disaster spending on projects that help protect states, cities, and towns against future catastrophes.

Of the 20 states awarded the most per-capita funding by the FEMA program, 15 went for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, while 16 sent a predominantly Republican delegation to the House of Representatives.

In the Sandy relief bill, $5.3 billion of the proposed hazard mitigation funds would go to to the U.S. Department of Transportation to shore up mass transit infrastructure against future disasters, while $2 billion would be distributed via the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Some Republicans who have been critical of the relief bill may not actually oppose the spending on principle, but instead were politically boxed in by Democrats after the vote to avert the fiscal cliff, suggests William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a former advisor to President Bill Clinton.

For the GOP, which had been seeking far more in budget cuts than were included in the fiscal cliff legislation, the idea of voting for new spending was extremely unpalatable, Galston said.

“I don’t think a lot of them would stand up and say that a national response to natural disaster is not part of the federal government’s responsibility — they couldn’t possibly say that,” said Galston. “And so they couched their objection, as I understand it, as a critique of what they described as a pork-laden Senate bill.”

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