Federal shutdown would hurt Harvey victims, land commissioner tells lawmakers

The possibility of a federal government shutdown is threatening to delay a long-awaited Hurricane Harvey disaster relief package, state and local leaders told a legislative committee Thursday.

During a Texas House Committee on Urban Affairs hearing in Houston, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the much-needed federal aid shouldn’t be bogged down by partisan issues.

“Politics have gotten in the way of Congress approving that money,” Bush said. “People are waiting. They need help. This is above politics, this is above party labels … We thought by the end of the year we would have a final conclusion on the disaster recovery package.”

With a shutdown looming Friday unless Congress passes a spending bill, members of the GOP majority were pushing for a short-term measure to keep the government open through mid-February while they negotiated over sticking points like the fate of “dreamers” — undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — and border security.

But if enough Senate Democrats succeed in opposing the spending bill, Harvey aid could be further delayed for tens of thousands of Texans affected by the hurricane.

In December, the House passed an $ 81 billion package for hurricane and wildfire victims in Texas, Florida, California, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But the Senate has yet to vote on it.

Turner said more delay is unacceptable because the $ 5 billion in Harvey relief awarded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last November still hasn’t gotten to Texas, and he estimates that it won’t reach Harvey victims until summer — nearly a year after the hurricane. 

As Texas awaits action from Washington, Turner said the state should be dipping into its emergency fund, better known as the Rainy Day Fund, to help Harvey victims.

“If Harvey doesn’t qualify for the Rainy Day Fund, then what does?” Turner said. ”Telling people to wait until [the state Legislature meets in] 2019, when they’re hurting right now, it’s not an answer. This is the people’s money. It doesn’t belong to elected officials.”

Because the Legislature isn’t scheduled to meet for another year, Abbott would need to call a special session so lawmakers could consider using the $ 10 billion fund for Harvey relief efforts. A spokesperson for Abbott said the state already diverted money from several state agencies to address Harvey relief so it’s not yet necessary to tap into the Rainy Day Fund.

Turner said state and federal funding is needed not only to address the immediate needs of those affected by the hurricane, but also to work on long-term solutions to prevent future flood damage.

“We know storms are going to come,” he said. “But when they do come, have we put ourselves in a stronger, more resilient position? If we get the funding just to put ourselves back where we were, I call that funding for failure because we know the next storm will come.”

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