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N.J. Democrats and Republicans blast Trump plan for flood-insurance hikes

WASHINGTON -- At least one part of President Trump's budget has united New Jersey Democrats and Republicans -- in opposition.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle on Tuesday decried a proposal  to sharply raise premiums on federal flood-insurance policies -- vital to the Jersey Shore -- as part of an effort to save nearly $9 billion over the next decade and get the program out of the red.

The planned cut, light on details, touches a particularly sore spot for New Jerseyans, who have complained of struggles to get compensation from the flood-insurance program ever since swaths of the state were battered by Hurricane Sandy.

Under Trump's plan, many could pay more for that insurance.

His proposal calls for "targeted premium increases" on people who have subsidized insurance and surcharges across the National Flood Insurance Program, to "make the program fiscally sustainable over time and begin paying down the NFIP's debt," budget documents said.

New Jersey lawmakers balked at those hikes. There were 229,595 federal flood-insurance policies in the Garden State through March -- the fifth highest total nationwide, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Nearly 61,000 more policies were in force in Pennsylvania, part of about five million nationwide.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) said the changes would "undermine the flood insurance marketplace, force people from homes they could no longer afford, drive down property values, and destroy communities."

And Rep. Tom MacArthur (R., N.J.), who represents a large piece of Ocean County, said he was mystified by how the premium hikes would be achieved. He is working on a House plan to overhaul the flood-insurance program and raise some rates, but said the increases considered in that effort don't come close to what the administration seems to have in mind.

"I don't know where the administration envisions cutting that much," MacArthur told reporters. "It certainly is not in the flood bill that I've been working on here in the House."

Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a Republican from the Atlantic City area, said the government "cannot and should not" ask more of policyholders.

The administration's plan also calls for eliminating the $190 million budget for mapping flood zones. Those costs would instead fall on policyholders.

The budget documents do not spell out the details of the planned premium hikes or surcharges, and FEMA, which manages the flood program, did not provide any more specifics Tuesday. "Congress can identify mechanisms," to address the debt, a FEMA spokeswoman wrote in an email.

About 20 percent of federal flood-insurance policies are subsidized to keep costs down, and the program has fallen $24.6 billion into debt after storms such as Katrina and Sandy sapped its funds.

Conservatives worry about that debt and chafe at the subsidies, which they argue force people who don't use the program to help cover the cost of those who own homes in flood-prone areas. They are pushing to overhaul the program, including raising premiums, before its authorization expires Sept. 30.

The Trump budget documents say the administration hopes to begin paying down its debt "while leveling the playing field" for private insurers to compete.

"By demonstrating to homeowners the true cost of living in a flood plain, the proposal would also incentivize mitigation of flood risk before disasters occur," the documents say.