Ore. Lawmakers Back Disaster Aid Bills

February 13, 2008

Spurred by December storms that caused millions of dollars in flood and wind damage, Oregon lawmakers are expediting a package of disaster aid bills in this special session, including one to get jobless benefits more quickly to storm victims.

Other bills would restrict insurance companies from canceling policies of people who haven’t paid premiums because their lives have been disrupted by a disaster, and to make loans or grants available to local governments to repair damage to public property.

Those bills were put on a fast track by House and Senate leaders, who agreed to allow them to be introduced well after the filing deadline for most other bills that are being taken up in the February session.

The legislation comes on the heels of twin Pacific storms that pummeled the state in December, particularly northwest Oregon, damaging thousands of houses and causing an estimated $60 million in damage to roads, bridges and public buildings.

“While the December floods were the impetus for this, these are bills that are going to assist victims on into the future, no matter where in our state a disaster might strike next,” said Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie.

Witt is chairman of the House Workforce and Economic Development Committee, which on Monday voted unanimously to advance two of the bills to the full House for consideration; a third goes to the Legislature’s budget-writing committee for further review.

One of the bills will allow the state to waive the one-week waiting period for obtaining unemployment benefits in an area where there’s been a natural disaster.

“When you’ve lost everything in something like a flood, one of the things you might need is unemployment benefits right away,” said Ken Murphy, director of Oregon Emergency Management.

The second measure would allow the governor to invoke rules barring insurance companies from dropping clients for failing to pay their insurance payments during a disaster in a designated area.

The third measure to gain approval Monday would set up a new emergency recovery fund to help cities and counties pay their share of the cost of repairing public property such as roads, bridges or buildings.

Right now, in federally declared disasters, 75 percent of the cost is borne by the federal government, while local governments are responsible for coming up with a matching 25 percent of the cost. The $2 million fund endorsed by the panel would help local governments receive federal matching funds.

Murphy, the state emergency management chief, said the December storms “clearly got the attention” of lawmakers and the bills would enhance the state’s ability to help out in the next disaster.

“During disasters, you’ve got to be able to provide people a sense of hope,” Murphy said.

The bills are HB3606; HB3605 and HB3607.

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