January 12

D.C. Notebook: Congress’ agenda items will affect Mainers

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — While long-term unemployment insurance dominated Congress’ first week of the 2014 session, there is a host of other upcoming issues that will affect everything from how much Mainers pay for flood insurance to food stamp funding in a state with high food insecurity rates.

click image to enlarge

Among the issues facing Congress is the farm and possible changes to the nation’s complex dairy pricing system.

2009 Associated Press File Photo

Democrats’ push to extend unemployment insurance will top the agenda again this week.

Despite ending on a partisan note, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle – including Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a potential swing vote – are still expressing optimism that a deal is possible.

More than 3,000 Mainers lost their unemployment benefits on Dec. 28 when a previous extension expired. An estimated 9,000 more state residents would lose benefits by the end of the summer.

Lingering disagreement over unemployment insurance has also apparently stalled work on a bill that would delay implementation of new flood insurance rates that could cause premiums for some Maine property owners to rise significantly.

The new rates are the result of a 2012 law aimed at making the federal flood insurance program more financially solvent after being hit with massive payouts from storms such as Hurricane Katrina and superstorm Sandy. But the sizable rate hikes – combined with new Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps being rolled out for Maine – have resulted in an outcry.

The Senate is expected to hold a test vote this week on a bipartisan bill – the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act – that would delay the rate hikes for several years while FEMA studies the costs to property owners.

Collins signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill last week. Maine’s two House members – Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, both Democrats – are co-sponsors of a companion bill in the House that has yet to see any action in that chamber.

Meanwhile, Congress is also facing two other major deadlines as it attempts to agree on a detailed spending plan for the current year and to pass a farm bill.

On the farm bill, Democrats and Republicans have been hung up on two issues with implications for some in Maine: the level of food stamp funding over the next decade and changes to the nation’s complex dairy pricing system.

Reports suggest that House and Senate negotiators have agreed to slash roughly $9 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. That is well below House Republicans’ $39 billion proposed cut and more than double Senate Democrats’ $4 billion proposal.

Maine consistently has among the highest proportions of residents on food stamps, with roughly 18 percent of Mainers receiving assistance in 2011.

The current version of the farm bill would replace government “safety net” subsidies for dairy farms with a “margin insurance” program that would require participating farmers to limit milk production when oversupply drives prices down.

The change has earned lukewarm, at best, support in Maine’s dairy industry. But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has vowed to prevent a House vote on the whole farm bill if the proposed reforms remain in place.

And with a debt ceiling fight looming next month plus debates on immigration and raising the minimum wage, the political temperature in Washington is likely to stay warm throughout the winter months.

FAST-TRACKING TRADE DEALS

Members of Maine’s delegation are vowing to oppose legislation that would fast-track international trade agreements through Congress.

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