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Wednesday, Nov 26, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Bilirakis coolly avoids unforced error

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If you’re among those who love the Gulf shore and would love to wake up each morning to the rhythm of waves whispering across sand; if you think nothing beats the sight of the sun dipping below a watery horizon, especially when viewed from your beach-front porch; or if your life’s dream is tying up to your twin-engine power boat to your dock on a canal five minutes from open water ... if any or all of that is true and yet you took to the Pasco highlands because you didn’t want to be flooded out when The Big One hits, you’re probably not very happy with your congressman just now.

This is because, although Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, undoubtedly respects your sense of self-denial, your vote in November’s midterm election probably isn’t going to pivot on whether people who succumbed to the Gulf of Mexico’s siren call catch a break on the price of federally sponsored flood insurance. The same cannot be said for the thousands who live or own businesses in coastal flood zones in north Pinellas and Pasco counties.

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At issue is the fallout from the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, passed in 2012, which ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to plug a $20 billion hole in the federal flood insurance program created by epochal disasters, including hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

Bilirakis supported the legislation, believing researchers who reported the increases would be no more than $400 annually over the five-year phase-in. Instead, last summer flood-zone property owners were jolted by notices that their premiums would leap by two to 10 times what they’d been. At a December meeting organized by Bilirakis for constituents to describe the havoc wrought by FEMA’s interpretation of the act’s provisions, homeowners cited staggering premium price tags, some amounting to more than 10 percent of their homes’ assessed value.

They couldn’t afford their flood insurance, but they couldn’t afford to move, either, because few if any buyers were willing to take on the new premiums. Left as it was, Realtors complained, Biggert-Waters would collapse Florida’s coastal real estate market just as the state was crawling out of its pit of foreclosure despair.

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Introduced in October, Bilirakis’ solution — limit premiums to no more than the assessed value of a structure at the time of its sale, divided by 30, phased in over 10 years — never got traction in the House. Meanwhile, a bipartisan monstrosity that, as you might expect from any body overseen by spite-prone Majority Leader Harry Reid, picks winners and losers within neighborhoods emerged from the Senate.

The first clue to its abominable nature is the name: The Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2013. Haven’t we had enough of Washington’s idea of “affordability” already?

Then there’s this devilish provision: Second homes and vacation homes are left out, presumably because people who can afford two or more houses light $50 cigars with $100 bills. So tell us, winter visitors, all you retirees from General Motors, the post office and Con Edison, is that how it works?

On the other hand, taxpayers who don’t live in areas prone to floods — we are thinking of folks up on LeHeup Hill — can’t be blamed for bristling over the idea that they’re expected to continue subsidizing property owners who chose recklessly.

Caught between a rock and that prickly place and over stern objections from GOP leadership, Bilirakis cast a difficult vote in favor of the Senate measure when House Democrats managed to get the bill to the floor last week, costing him his seat in the Republican leadership council. Bilirakis shrugged off the demotion, as well he should. A leadership slot isn’t much use if keeping it means losing an election, or inviting a primary challenge.

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As noted in the New York Daily News’ “Mouth of the Potomac” political blog, “Leadership pressure may explain why most Republicans, including members representing New Jersey coastal communities and Rep. Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island) voted against taking up their own flood insurance legislation, to the delight of Democrats envisioning 30-second ads highlighting the votes.”

Indeed. With support for some sort of re-do important to both parties in both chambers, some sort of compromise is bound to be pounded out. But if Bilirakis had held out for just the right sort of legislation before climbing on board, it’s not hard to imagine the campaign commercial he’d have to weather: Gus Bilirakis: He was against flood insurance reform before he was for it.

So he did what he had to do, all the while knowing those who gave him the boot were cobbling together an alternative package that’s scheduled to debut this week. Meanwhile, Bilirakis, demoted but unchastened, has avoided committing an unforced error, something for which both sides — but especially goof-prone Republicans — need to be alert in the roll toward November.

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Last week marked the fifth annual International Business Conference at Saint Leo University. Friday’s column provided an incorrect number.

tjackson@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1851

Twitter: @tjacksonTBO

Blog: www.tbo.com/tomjackson/

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