WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of lawmakers Tuesday unveiled legislation that would delay for about four years several changes to the federal government's flood insurance program that are threatening to sock thousands of people with steep premium increases.
The move comes as the government is beginning to implement a significant overhaul of the much-criticized program. That overhaul passed last year with sweeping support.
The revamped program was backed by both liberals and Tea Party conservatives but has caused concern in places like Staten Island, N.Y., and the New Jersey coast and in flood-prone areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida, where higher rates threaten to push some people out of their homes.
Some of the most ardent supporters of delaying the premium increases are conservative Republicans from Southern states, where the new rules have sent some home values plummeting because of uncertainty over insurance rates and because subsidized rates can't be passed along to buyers.
New flood maps threaten to saddle some homeowners who are paying a few hundred dollars a year now with annual premiums of more than $20,000.
"This is a real threat to the economic well-being of many communities," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. "There is no state that is exempt from this challenge."
Last year's legislation promises premium increases to 1.1 million homeowners who've received subsidized, below-risk coverage and could affect even more homeowners whose homes met older building standards or were deemed at lower risk under previous flood maps. Under the former rules, they could retain their old rates, but under the new law they will lose those "grandfathered" rates.
The new legislation, unveiled Tuesday at a Capitol Hill news conference, would delay the new rates for people purchasing homes from someone who currently has a subsidized policy or people who face higher rates when flood maps are updated. People with second homes or whose property has repeatedly been flooded would still have to pay the higher rates, which are scheduled to rise by 25 percent a year until their premiums reflect the true risk of flooding.
Last year's law protected subsidies for people who receive them if their houses hadn't been recently flooded. The new legislation would allow them to transfer the subsidy when they sell their home, thereby propping up home values.
It's unclear whether the drive to delay implementation of the law will succeed. Backers of the delay won an impressive, bipartisan 281-146 House vote earlier this year on an amendment to a spending bill that would postpone some of the premium increases. But conservative groups are against the idea, and top House and Senate leaders have both been silent about it.