Melancon recounts successful year in Washington, touches on future
Louisiana’s representative for the 3rd District, which covers a majority of the southern part of the state, is currently trying to help the state rebuild, while also making it his goal to lower health care cost and home insurance.
Melancon recently took some time from touring the state to sit down with Herald-Guide editor Jonathan Menard and discuss current and future issues that will impact Louisiana.
Congress has been extremely busy during this past year. Is it nice to be able to get back to Louisiana and meet with your constituents?
"Ms. (Nancy) Pelosi decided that she wanted to demonstrate to the people in America that we were going to be hard workers. The only problem is that when you work in Washington five days a week you don't get home to see the people, and that's a big part of the job. I'm hands on and I like that, so that has been the difficult part of being in this new Congress."
What has Congress been up to?
"We've been doing a lot of things and moving a lot of bills, though we do wish the Senate would move a lot more bills, but still we have done quite a bit. We did a lot of Katrina/Rita related work and got the WRDA bill done, so we're excited about that. We were able to get $3 billion into Louisiana's Road Home Program."
How was Congress able to find the money to move so many bills?
"Every appropriation is subject to the PAYGO (pay-as-you-go) Rule. If you don't have the money, you have to find it. It has to be within the same budget or the same appropriations agency. One way to get the money is from supplemental emergency spending and that's where they've been funding Katrina/Rita and the war. The second place is military operations appropriations and that's where Senator (Mary) Landrieu, with the help of the House side of the conference committee, put the $3 billion into the Road Home Program because it's not subject to PAYGO. A number of years back, when they set up the Department of Homeland Security, they said that in the event of an emergency we didn't need to be restricted by PAYGO. It was quite a coup to get that, otherwise they would have been shutting down the Road Home program here in December. It will take us probably until March or April with the funding that she got in there."
With the PAYGO Rule in place, which forces the payment for expenditures with funds that are made available as the program is in progress, why are we facing such a large deficit?
"Seven years ago, when former President Clinton left the White House and congress was all Republican, they had the PAYGO Rules in place. When he left the White House, congress took the PAYGO rules away and President Bush started his first term. At that time we had $5.5 trillion in surplus and now we have right at $9 trillion in deficit. That in itself should scream at you that you don't spend money if you don't have it. The interest we pay on the monies that we borrowed is money that could be put to good use on levees."
Because of the storms, many Louisianians are facing astronomical home insurance rates. Is there anything being done to lower homeowners insurance in the state?
"We've worked on several insurance pieces. The first piece was the (Rep.) Gene Taylor bill, which puts wind and water under the flood administration [National Flood Insurance Program], a program that is already there, already funded and already has actuaries and underwriting. Having wind and water combined eliminates that contentious issue of concurrent causation. Basically, with the concurrent causation clause in those policies, you can have wind blow everything away from the house but one 2x4 and if water comes and knocks away that 2x4 they can disallow the claim and that's basically what they did in many instances.
"Then about two weeks ago we did the Mahoney/Klein bill, of which I'm a co-author. That bill basically sets up, by sale of federally backed bonds, a reserve fund. The bonds are then there in the event that Louisiana has a loss that exceeds the amount of reserves they have for the fund. They can borrow against this money at a low interest rate to replenish the fund to re-grow it. They can also partner up with other states on a voluntary basis. Both of these bills [Taylor and Mahoney/Klein] are passed the House and we are waiting for the Senate to act on both bills."
Why is it left up to the legislature to lower insurance rates? Could insurance companies not come up with a plan on their own?
"That's the reason why we've addressed it on a federal level because it's obvious that the insurance carriers are not making an effort. They don't care. I was in the insurance business for 20 years and they can be selective and they are selective. If we don't pass either or both of these legislative initiatives, then we are going to have some really horrible problems."
How has Congress gone about improving Louisiana's coast and levee system?
"We passed the WRDA bill, so after seven years of waiting on the White House, that basically didn't seem to want a WRDA bill, we finally got one. I'm not sure why the President opposed it, he said the costs, but he's been spending money for seven years and now he wants to get fiscally responsible. But the WRDA bill is not a spending bill as much as an authorization bill, and without the authorization you can't build. All these levee projects could never get started if we don't receive authorization. The WRDA bill gave us that ability to move things that have been waiting for seven years and get them going forward."
What about the issues that weren't included in WRDA?
"Our next step is to see if we can muster what I call WRDA II. That will be all the things that weren't included in the bill that started seven years ago. We need to see if we can move a WRDA every two years and try to take care of America's infrastructure."
What is going to be a major issue next year in regards to Louisiana?
"Well, we are going to continue to try to fight to get the revenues that we need to rebuild. Ironically, when you look at the monies that were made available for hurricane recovery and rebuilding in the legislative process, during the old majority in a conference committee, they put a cap on the amount of money any state could get. We had 80 percent of the loss and now we are restricted to 54 percent of the money. When they sent $275 million and put it out there for the higher education money, Mississippi ended up with $175 million and we got $75 million and we had four universities go under in New Orleans."
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