Published 5:19 pm Wednesday, January 30, 2019

(Austin)  The topic of what the state needs to do to help communities recover from 2017’s Hurricane Harvey arose as the Senate Finance Committee opened public hearings on the budget this week.  Reviewing the supplemental budget on Wednesday, members discussed the need for funding and unified flood mitigation and recovery plan for future events. SB 500, which would spend $4.2 billion to balance accounts between what was appropriated for this biennium and actual costs and expenditures through the end of this fiscal year, includes $1.2 billion in state funds for Harvey recovery efforts.  Most of that, $900 million, would go toward helping school districts cope with the loss of funding due to decreased student populations and local property tax value.

The federal government is supposed to pay for most of the cost of repair and mitigation, but the federal shutdown could be endangering recovery efforts.  Brenham Senator Lois Kolkhorst told fellow Finance members about a conversation she had with the Chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management Nim Kidd last week.  He told her that every day the government is shut down, it could cost the state two days worth of recovery funding. “It’s kind of shut down and we’re at a standstill on the housing issue that we see in my district, and then also some of the other FEMA funds that could come to our local communities for mitigation and for repair,” said Kolkhorst.   State lawmakers can’t reopen the federal government, but if the shutdown persists, the question of increased state aid toward recovery efforts could become more pressing.

Other members wanted to ensure that the state is doing everything it can to help local governments draw down federal funds.   Some federal aid comes in the form of matching grant programs, where Washington will match or reimburse local expenditures toward disaster recovery.  Drawing down these funds is often proactive on the part of the local entities; they have to come up with the money to get the match or spend the funds before they can be reimbursed.  Houston Senator Joan Huffman, who represents parts of Fort Bend and Brazoria counties asked if the state should step in to help. “There’s a lot of federal money out there and it’s a shame, in my opinion, to let some of the local communities not be able to rebuild and mitigate and save money for the future when we may be able to help on some of these big projects,” she said.   Committee Chair Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound said that they can look at this issue closer next week when the General Land Office is scheduled to appear before the Finance Committee as part of the regular appropriations process.

There was also a concern for the future expressed by members, and the need for cooperation and coordination between government at all levels.  “We need to leave here with a statewide flood plan with oversight and accountability designated for local, state and federal partners,” said Lubbock Senator Charles Perry, who chairs the Committee on Water and Rural Affairs.  His committee studied the issue over the interim and found that historically, flood mitigation in Texas has been a patchwork of regional efforts that can often cause problems for neighboring areas. “I don’t disagree with you that we have money on the table that needs to be pulled down,” he told Huffman.  “But my caution is, we can end up like a New Orleans, that still doesn’t have a recovery because nothing was done with oversight, coordination, and collaboration.” Perry has filed a bill, SB 396, that would direct state agencies to develop a plan for flood disaster response that ensures that all agencies at all levels of government are on the same page when trying to help communities bounce back from hurricanes and other flood events.  

The Senate will reconvene Monday, January 28 at 3 p.m.