Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott’s weekly column deals with disaster assistance for Gulf Coast residents and farmers:
Before Christmas the Senate completed work on three major pieces of Hurricane Katrina recovery legislation totaling about $40 billion. As we all remember, Congress and President Bush immediately made more than $60 billion available in relief funds just days after Hurricane Katrina hit last August. But since those early days, Mississippians have seen Washington’s attention wane from this disaster. So our Congressional delegation had to play some legislative hardball. We’ve taken half of that $60 billion and redirected it toward priority needs, and we’ve added a lot more money to it.
$29 billion supplemental: Of the $40 billion Congress provided for Katrina and Rita recovery on the eve of the Senate’s adjournment on Dec. 21, about $29 billion was contained in a supplemental budget appropriation. About $5 billion of that amount will assist Mississippians along the coast who are stuck with a mortgage and a slab. These are people who were told by professionals that they were outside the flood zone and didn’t need flood insurance, but who nevertheless were victimized by Katrina’s unprecedented tidal surge. These homeowners who qualify will now be eligible for up to $150,000 to replace their homes.
The supplemental Katrina bill passed by the Senate also includes: almost $3 billion for road and bridge repair; almost $2 billion to rebuild schools; $1.6 billion to bolster the coast’s shipbuilding industry; $1.3 billion to rebuild military installations; $1 billion for agricultural programs, including oyster reef refurbishment; $440 million for small business loans; $125 million for job training and $125 million for law enforcement. But without question this package is primarily a win for Katrina’s uninsured homeowners. It took time. It took negotiation and arm twisting by Senator Thad Cochran who wrote the bill, and myself, but at the end of the day, Mississippi prevailed.
$8 billion in tax incentives: The $29 billion supplemental package joins a Hurricane Katrina tax relief measure I authored and championed in the Congress and which also passed right before adjournment and was signed into law by President Bush on December 21. It includes about $8 billion in tax incentives for businesses and debt restructuring opportunities for Mississippi’s cities and aims squarely at getting people back to work by establishing a special “opportunity zone” throughout South Mississippi and the other Katrina-ravaged states.
Small businesses in the zone’s 40 Mississippi counties are now eligible for a variety of tax incentives exclusive to the zone, designed to encourage them to rehire and reinvest in their businesses and communities. It also allows municipalities – some of which were literally blown or, more accurately “washed,” off the map – to restructure their long-term debt and concentrate on the immediate needs of getting their infrastructure back in place, including schools, water and sewer systems, police and fire departments. It also will provide incentives for an adequate housing supply to get Mississippians out of tents and trailers and back into decent, long-term housing.
$2 billion in Medicaid reimbursements: Finally , I was pleased to announce that Mississippi along with Louisiana will get a huge helping hand with a provision I authored to put 100 percent of the Medicaid burden on Washington, instead of Jackson and Baton Rouge.
Let me explain: First, this has nothing to do with expanding the Medicaid rolls or the program’s eligibility requirements. Instead, it is a measure designed strictly to give the two states hardest hit by Katrina more financial breathing room, recognizing that they must have time to replenish their tax base.
For example, in Mississippi’s case, state taxpayers usually contribute about 22 cents of every Medicaid dollar, with the federal government taking care of the rest. My provision in the bill passed by the Senate on Dec. 21 requires Washington to pick up the entire Medicaid tab in primarily the two state’s hardest hit by Katrina until the $2 billion is expended. That means Mississippi will have about $700 million more dollars to divert toward the rebuilding and recovery effort.
Tens of billions here, another couple of billion there – these numbers are big. But, large though they may be, the total is but a single component of what it will take to rebuild lives and property along the Gulf Coast. When Congress returns in January, Washington can expect our state’s delegation to continue playing hardball because hardball is what Katrina still is playing with Mississippi.