|Cedar Rapids Gazette|
January 22, 2009
By: James Q. Lynch
House panel passes $56 million disaster aid package
DES MOINES — The House Rebuild Iowa Committee has approved a $56 million disaster recovery bill hailed as "first step" in helping Iowans recover from floods and tornadoes.
House Study Bill 64 would add $13 million to the $43 million Gov. Chet Culver proposed spending from the state's rainy day accounts.
"This is a significant step forward," Rep. Tyler Olson, D-Cedar Rapids, told the committee, which approved the bill 15-0, "but only the first step."
"The gap between need and current resources is huge, but we must make progress, and this bill is progress toward getting Iowans back in their homes and businesses back up and running," Olson said.
Minority Republicans, who joined in approving the bill 15-0, called the assistance "essential" and suggested it might be appropriate to spend more of the $155 million rainy day fund for disaster recovery.
The economic emergency funds "were designed for emergencies and I think it's legitimate to spend up to half of that," Rep. Tom Sands, R-Columbus Junction, said. He cautioned against spending more than half "because we don't know what emergencies might be coming."
The full House could vote on the bill Thursday, but that's unlikely, because it first needs Appropriations Committee approval. Leaders expect it to land on Culver's desk next week. They want to see it become law no later than Valentine's Day.
The bill would provide $24 million in housing assistance and raise the guidelines for assistance from 100 to 150 percent of the median county income so more disaster victims would be eligible.
Another $10 million would fund individual assistance grants for unmet needs and raise the income eligibility from 100 percent of the federal poverty level to 300 percent — roughly $64,000 for a family of four.
There was some concern that the grants, no more than $2,500 per household, could be spent on non-essential items such as plasma TVs rather than food, clothing or temporary housing.
Olson explained the program is virtually the same as the individual needs assistance the state made available after ice storms in 2007.
The third facet of the bill would make $22 million available for community assistance grants. The money would be distributed to cities and counties based on their share of the total statewide damage from the floods and tornadoes.
The bill would give preference to those disaster victims who received no assistance in the first round of aid. The next preference would be those who received less than $24,999 in aid and if there is money left, aid would be offered to those who received $25,000 or more, but still need help.
The House committee also approved an amendment creating the Rebuild Iowa Office and a coordinating council with representatives of 14 agencies. The governor had asked for $2 million to fund the office, but no funding was attached to the amendment.
"We think its important to get as much money out as quickly as possible to disaster-affected Iowans, so in the bill, all the dollars are going out to the folks affected by the flood and tornado," Olson said.
Olson wouldn't say whether the governor has agreed to the additional $13 million in funding. A spokesman for the governor would say only that it is being considered.
Olson said A Senate subcommittee is to take up the bill Thursday.