Jun 21 2011

B'ham News: Shelby leading on disaster relief

OUR VIEW: Sen. Richard Shelby is leading the effort to help storm-damaged areas get lots of federal help in rebuilding.

States in the Midwest and Southeast have taken a beating like no other during storms this spring, of that there is no argument. Killer tornadoes that plowed through Alabama alone on April 27 destroyed dozens of neighborhoods and several towns and killed more than 240 people.

The devastation in Alabama was enough for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to give it the highest disaster classification, on a scale with 2005's Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed the Mississippi Gulf Coast and led to the flooding of New Orleans.

So it makes sense that a version of the federal storm recovery package Congress passed in the wake of Katrina would fit the storm recovery effort in the Midwest and Southeast, too.

Give credit to Alabama's U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby for leading the effort to get Congress to act on the incentives that will encourage rebuilding after the storms.

Alabama's other senator, Jeff Sessions, isn't sitting on the sidelines, either. He quickly joined Shelby, five other Republicans and three Democrats as co-sponsors of the legislation, which was introduced last Wednesday.

Because the bill has bipartisan sponsorship and is modeled on previous postdisaster recovery bills, it should draw few outright opponents. But there may be questions about the cost of the bill and the wisdom of decreasing revenue to the Treasury while the nation is running record deficits.

The questions are legitimate, but justifying the need for help in rebuilding ought to be easy for Shelby and other bill sponsors.

The Southeastern Disaster Tax Relief Act will apply to counties in declared disaster areas affected between April 14 and June 7 in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee. The act will cover the 43 counties in Alabama declared disaster areas, including Jefferson County.

The bill includes tax-free financing for communities to rebuild, deductions for businesses that must clean up their property, reforestation for tree farmers who lost trees and incentives for employers to keep paying workers even while a business is closed because of the storms.

A major benefit if the legislation passes is the ability of states and cities to issue tax-exempt bonds to finance buying, constructing or renovating property, including low-income rental housing, low-income single-family housing and public utility infrastructure such as gas, water, electric and telecommunication.

Alabama could qualify for $3.2 billion in bonds under the program. That benefit could be the catalyst Birmingham Mayor William Bell is looking for in redeveloping the Pratt City neighborhood, where many homes and apartments were destroyed.

Bell wants the reconstruction effort in Pratt City to focus on underinsured and uninsured homeowners, aid for renters and the creation of a master plan to rebuild Pratt City to something more than it was before the tornadoes struck. Shelby's bill could provide much of the funding to see Bell's dream for Pratt City become reality.

The challenge will be getting the measure through Congress while the honorables are wrestling over whether to raise the debt ceiling to prevent the country from going into default on existing bonds.

While the summary for Shelby's bill said the 20 or so provisions included are offset by rescinding $12 billion in unspent and uncommitted federal funds, true deficit hawks out of the storm zone might be hard to convince. To them, unspent money is money saved; Shelby proposes to spend it on tax incentives and tax-exempt bonds.

Still, the areas destroyed in the storms this spring need exceptional help. Shelby offers that with the Southeastern Disaster Tax Relief Act.