A $60 billion emergency spending bill that would provide federal aid to states still recovering from Hurricane Sandy would guarantee additional money for Maryland and subtly change the way administration officials determine eligibility for disaster relief in the future.
The controversial legislation — which the Senate is debating this week — would set aside $17 billion in federal grants to all states affected by the storm, including Maryland. It also would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency to give "greater weight" to economic factors when deciding whether to provide certain types of disaster aid in the future.
Maryland officials decried a decision this month by the Obama administration to deny Gov. Martin O'Malley's request for federal assistance for Eastern Shore residents who lost homes and businesses in the October storm. The White House partly reversed the decision last week, agreeing to offer individual help to those living in Somerset County.
The emergency bill would pump money into the dwindling federal disaster relief fund that is being used mainly to pay for damage in harder-hit New York and New Jersey. But the measure also includes a handful of provisions that would effect disaster-struck Marylanders. Hundreds of homes in the state suffered damage or were destroyed by flooding.
"The clock is ticking," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said in support of the measure that she helped to craft. "The TV cameras have left, but the compelling human need has not."
Included in the proposal is language requiring the administration to give additional consideration to a community's unemployment, average income and the number of elderly when deciding whether to grant aid that can be used to cover housing and medical expenses. Mikulski and others have noted the high unemployment in some of the affected Eastern Shore counties.
But the impact of such language is uncertain. FEMA does not disclose the formula it uses to make its recommendations on whether to provide disaster aid. The agency is already required to consider economic factors, but it is not clear how much weight those factors are given.
State officials included unemployment rates for Worcester, Dorchester and Somerset counties in the original application for aid it submitted to the federal government.
More immediately, the legislation would set aside $17 billion in Community Development Block Grants that states could use to help residents affected by Sandy. The amount of money Maryland would receive under that provision would be determined later by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. States would have wide flexibility in how to use that aid.
"That could well be the largest single source of funds coming in to help the residents of Crisfield," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who also has pushed hard for aid.
Days after the storm made landfall in New Jersey, O'Malley requested that residents in the affected Eastern Shore counties be allowed to apply for a disaster program that pays for housing and other living expenses. The White House, which bases its decision on FEMA's recommendation, denied that request in early December. State officials appealed the decision and added other counties to its request, including in Western Maryland, to emphasize the storm's impact.
The administration reversed its decision for Somerset on Dec. 14. The decision does not mean residents will automatically receive aid, only that they are allowed to apply.
Though it could be politically touchy for Congress to leave Washington this month without providing additional aid to Sandy victims, it's not clear the current iteration of the legislation will win approval. Republicans have criticized many of the bill's provisions, including the $17 billion in grants. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, noting that many of the bill's provisions do not deal with immediate needs, described it as a "train … full of pork."
Other Republicans argue that the additional spending on Sandy relief should be offset with new budget cuts.