Two of Montana’s U. S. lawmakers — who are opponents in the next federal election — have different takes on the funding for disaster services proposed by the U. S. House of Representatives.
Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., has announced that, while cutting the budget for the U. S. Department of Homeland Security proposed by President Barack Obama by $3 billion overall, the House has added more than a billion for disaster response and has added another billion in a different appropriations bill.
But Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has repeatedly said that he is concerned that the cuts to Homeland Security — including cuts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency — will make it difficult to deal with the disasters hitting the United States this year.
“I am particularly alarmed by the looming shortfall in FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund, which the House left dangerously unfunded even amid a string of weather-related disasters across the country that has lead us to 45 declared disasters, ” Tester said on the floor of the Senate last week. “We are now looking at estimates of a 2-to-nearly-5-billion dollar shortfall for Fiscal Year 2012 alone. The total need is estimated to be as much as 6.6 billion. ”
Rehberg, who faces Tester in the 2012 Senate election, contests that analysis.
“Senator Tester simply doesn't have his facts straight, ” said Jed Link, Rehberg’s spokesman. “Denny and the House have voted twice to increase funding for disaster response, even providing $2.85 billion above the president’s budget request.
“It’s unfortunate that anyone would try to score cheap political points at a time when Montanans are trying to get back into their homes and finally get their crops planted, ” Link added.
But Tester’s office said Rehberg has supported cuts to emergency services, and the House now is trying to put money back to replace some of that and the amount for disaster relief is likely to fall short.
“The House thinks we should pay for past disasters with funding allocated for current and future disasters, and by cutting assistance to firefighters and other first responders, ” Tester said, calling the decision “irresponsible. ”
Hill County and Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation are waiting for the final federal payments to help pay for repairs of flood damage in 2010, while those entities along with Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and Blaine and Chouteau counties are among governments across the state moving into a federal disaster cycle now.
The state Disaster and Emergency Services has an initial meeting to start the disaster relief process, one of six around the state, scheduled in Havre Tuesday morning.
Tester said cuts to programs and grants will hurt the nation’s ability to respond to disasters in the future.
Tester’s office cites an article in The Hill on May 24 which reports that while House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee Chair Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., successfully sponsored the amendment to add $1 billion to emergency disaster relief, amendments sponsored by North Carolina Democrat Rep. David Price to restore $460 million in Firefighter Assistance Grants and to restore cuts to FEMA state and local programs and to firefighter programs failed on nearly party-line votes.
Rehberg voted for the first Price amendment, and against the second, because the spending in the second was not offset elsewhere in the budget process.
Tester cited cuts to funding for local emergency services in his Senate presentation.
“In Roundup, Billings and elsewhere in Montana, the folks who are rescuing stranded residents in boats to take them to get urgent medical care aren’t from FEMA, ” Tester said. “They are the same men and women who fight to protect our communities every day. The cops and firefighters who are a part of these communities.
“Taking away the resources they need won't fly — it is irresponsible. And unacceptable, ” Tester added.
But Rehberg’s office cites amendments added after the bill passed to the floor which added funding to programs, such as providing an additional $320 million for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant program and Assistance to Firefighter Grant programs. This brought total funding for these programs to the $670 million requested by the president.