Texas facing difficult situation after disaster funds are denied

Jun 3, 2011
by DTN

Gov. Rick Perry has appealed a federal decision denying Texas additional money to fight thousands of wildfires in the droughtstricken state.

For Perry, a Republican who is thinking about running for president and advocates a limited government, asking for more than $50 million is no small request.

But his office, along with the support of the North Texas delegation, has been calling for President Barack Obama to grant a major disaster declaration that would bring federal aid to Texas to help pay for firefighting costs.

In April, he had asked the federal government to pay 75 percent of the estimated $70 million cost of fighting the fires, leaving Texas to pay $17.5 million. On May 3, the administration turned Texas down, and shortly thereafter, Perry appealed that decision.

The federal debt of $14.3 trillion aside, disaster relief is a basic federal obligation, said Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Perry.

“What the federal government needs to do is focus on reducing its spending in the areas that it should leave up to the states to take care of themselves,” Frazier said.

Without a higher debt ceiling, which is being negotiated in Congress, borrowing money without cutting funding elsewhere becomes less of an option.

Alison Lynn, spokeswoman for Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-TX, said, “There’s no shortage of places to cut” that would save $100 million each year. She listed the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Amtrak as places to cut.

“However, Texas taxpayers have already paid into the Disaster Relief Fund, and those areas that have been devastated by fires should get a return on their money,” Lynn said in an email.

Rep. Mike Conaway, R- TX, said Texas taxpayers are feeling desperate.

Conaway spoke with a San Angelo resident who lost 20 miles of fence, some crops and cattle in a fire.

The fires, which Conaway said are caused by sparking power lines, chains dragged behind trucks, careless smokers and Mother Nature, are going to continue until it rains.

Meanwhile, the main response system to the fires, the Texas Forest Service, faces $34 billion in state budget cuts.

Conaway said lawmakers in Austin are going through a “really rugged time” trying to balance the budget.

“You don’t know the big picture that this required that they’ve been studying for four months now, and so it’d be really presumptive of me, and pretty arrogant, quite frankly, to try to weigh in on any decision they made,” Conaway said.

Since December, Texas has had almost 11,000 fires in 252 counties. Two firefighters have died, and more than 400 homes have been destroyed.

Regardless of what is decided for next year’s budget, Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-TX, said Texas is entitled to the money currently in the fund.

“Obviously at a time when we’re borrowing 42 cents for every dollar that we’re spending in this country, it would be a question that Congress would have to ask—whether we have the money or not to do that,” Neugebauer said. “But where we do currently have the money, I think the issue that’s at hand today is why isn’t Texas getting its fair share.”

Rachel Racusen, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spokeswoman at the agency’s Washington headquarters, said the federal government is already paying the majority of firefighting costs through Fire Management Assistance Grants (FMAGs) the state asked for.

When it denied Perry’s disaster declaration request, it said the state had enough resources.

Perry’s April 16 letter to the president said the state’s resources “will be exceeded and additional out-of-state resources will be needed to assist with the response.”

In his appeal, Perry said the FMAGs will cover only 21 percent of costs.

As of last week, FEMA has distributed $149 million in individual assistance nationally this year from the Disaster Relief Fund, which has a budget of $2.4 billion. Figures for public assistance, which go to rebuilding devastated areas, are not yet known. This includes the Mississippi River flooding and tornadoes in the South.

If spending authority in the fund runs out, the president can ask the Treasury Department to borrow more, said Richard Sylves, a professor at the University of Delaware and George Washington University, who has analyzed disaster declarations.

“The president’s Disaster Relief Fund balances, I am told, are never an issue in judging governor requests for major disaster or emergency declarations,” Sylves said in an email.

The House Appropriations Committee last week approved $1 billion in additional disaster relief for FEMA for fiscal 2012, which starts Oct. 1, to be offset by cutting an Energy Department loan program for the production of fuel-efficient vehicles.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-TX, said people who have suffered “real emergencies,” including floods and fires, must be helped.

“Disasters cannot be anticipated, even in today’s constrained budget environment. Emergency supplemental funding is designed to provide assistance to citizens who have been devastated by a natural disaster,” Hutchison said in a statement.

She did not respond to a request about how she would pay for it.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX, said states affected by disasters shouldn’t have to pay completely out of pocket.

“I think Texas is entitled to be treated on the same basis that every other state is with regard to disasters, but we shouldn’t be adding to our debt,” Cornyn said. “[Disaster relief] should be paid for and be deficit neutral.” — DTN