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California lawmakers push back on White House with new wildfire request

Watch state and federal fire debris removal in action in Santa Rosa

A state and federal program is offering free debris removal to residents whose homes were destroyed in the wine country fires.
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A state and federal program is offering free debris removal to residents whose homes were destroyed in the wine country fires.

California’s House members are joining across party lines to call for $4.4 billion for wildfire recovery from Congress, a unified statement that boosts the state’s chances of securing much-needed funds to help rebuild after this fall’s devastating fires.

The request is also a rebuke of the White House, which sent a $44 billion disaster aid request to Congress last month that made little mention of the state’s fire victims. The Trump administration later clarified that its requests for money for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Small Business Administration would all apply to California’s fire recovery, as well as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Even so, the sums the White House outlined on Nov. 17 were far less than what states affected by these disasters said they need to rebuild. California Democratic Congressmen Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman called the $44 billion request “anemic” even if applied just to hurricane recovery, and not nearly enough if wildfire needs were also included in the mix.

After negotiations between Democrats and Republicans this week in Washington, California’s House delegation agreed to ask House appropriators for $4.4 billion as part of a supplemental spending bill lawmakers are expected to pass this month. That echoes a Nov. 30 letter from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, which laid out the aid the state needs from various federal agencies including FEMA, USDA, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In the letter signed by California’s 53 members of Congress, they note the October wildfires that ravaged wine country and other parts of the state were “the worst fires in our state’s history.” 44 people were killed, 240,000 acres were burned, 8,800 buildings destroyed and 10,000 people were forced to evacuate.

In addition to federal recovery funding, the delegation is working to include a provision in the disaster aid bill that would reinstate tax breaks to the Californians affected by the wildfires. Under House Republican’s tax bill, approved by the chamber on Nov. 16, Americans would lose the ability to write-off personal losses from disasters like fires or earthquakes (although they could still do it for hurricane losses).

Thompson and Republican Rep. Mimi Walters recently introduced legislation that would preserve the deduction for the victims of the state’s recent fires, as well. Their proposal would also allow affected Californians to withdraw from their retirement accounts penalty-free and encourage charitable giving to help those in need. An aide said House leaders are hoping to hold a vote on that bill next week.

The new funding request represents a significant drop from the $7.4 billion Gov. Jerry Brown requested in a Nov. 14 letter to President Trump, which was signed by the entire Democratic Congressional delegation and one Republican, Orange County Rep. Ed Royce. The full GOP delegation sent a separate letter to Trump the same day requesting fire aid, but did not put a price tag on their request.

The bipartisan unity on this $4.4 billion figure, along with ongoing talks with the House Appropriations Committee drafting the next disaster aid legislation, have California Congress members optimistic the state will receive the funding it’s asking for. Having party leaders Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco in the delegation also gives the request significant heft.

"California will receive the resources we need in the supplemental package the House will pass – including legislation ensuring wildfire-specific tax relief for affected Californians, just as Congress approved for victims of the recent hurricanes,” McCarthy pledged in a statement. “We are united as a delegation to help our neighbors recover and rebuild from these tragic fires."

On Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan acknowledged the “dissatisfaction” of many on Capitol Hill with the White House disaster aid request, the third funding package the Trump administration has sought as it seeks to respond to an unprecedented wave of natural disasters. Congress has already passed two disaster aid funding packages this fall, including a $36.5 billion spending bill passed Oct. 12 that includes $577 million for the federal wildfire response.

Ryan said House leaders were now working with lawmakers from the affected states plus Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to come up with a package that better meets their needs. “I think it’s going to take the appropriators and these delegations … some time to work this out,” Ryan said at his weekly press conference. “But we do anticipate moving as quickly as we can.”

Emily Cadei: 202-383-6153, @emilycadei

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