RICHMOND – The two-year state budget proposed by House Republicans on Sunday includes $11.4 million in state funding for the victims of the major flood that destroyed dozens of homes in Buchanan County in August.
The allocation is based on legislation sponsored by Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, that had sought to create a designated fund for flood victims using money from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program that has brought more than $227 million to Virginia.
The fund would have made money available to any property owner whose claims were denied by insurance, as well as to those who don’t have insurance, once a locality or region is declared a major federal disaster area. Under Morefield’s original proposal, flood victims could have claimed up to $1 million for commercial properties and $500,000 for residential properties. The payouts would have been exempt from individual and corporate income tax.
But just one day after Morefield filed his House Bill 5, then-Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin told attendees at a Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce gathering that he would withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative via executive order, jeopardizing Morefield’s plan.
While Morefield’s proposal was on the docket of the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources earlier this month, the panel tabled the bill at his request, after he had determined “a clearer path in securing relief for the residents Hurley,” Morefield told Cardinal News. “This has been my top priority during the General Assembly session and I am committed to seeing it through,” he said.
Residents of Hurley had hoped for federal disaster funds after flooding, mudslides and rockslides triggered by an Aug. 30 downpour wiped out dozens of homes in the Guesses Fork section of Hurley, washing many others downstream. One person was killed during the disaster. Homeowners who had insurance found that their policies wouldn’t cover their losses – even those who held flood policies were denied coverage for damage caused by mudslides.
While Buchanan County was approved for federal financial help for rebuilding infrastructure and cleaning up debris, FEMA denied assistance to individual homeowners, saying in a letter to then-Gov. Ralph Northam that “the impact to the individuals and households from this event was not of such severity and magnitude” to warrant such aid.
Last week, U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, along with Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, announced almost $175,000 in funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission to the United Way of Southwest Virginia for the Hurley Disaster Recovery Project – a drop in the bucket considering the wide swath of destruction that had devastated the community.
Travis Staton, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia, said last month that a conservative estimate of the cost to rebuild or replace the homes and private bridges that were damaged in Hurley is about $3.5 million, using all volunteer labor.
On Sunday, he called the $11.4 million allocation for Hurley “great news.”
“We hope the amendment makes it cleanly through the remaining budget process,” he said.
Morefield said that it was “astonishing” to see that initially calls for federal assistance had been turned down even after Warner, Kaine and Griffith had made every effort to plead for it. “I realized when this was denied that I must take on the task myself because if nothing was done, an entire community would be left with nothing,” he said.
The funding proposed in the House Republican budget would be awarded as a grant and not a loan to those affected by the recent disaster. “In conjunction with figures provided by local officials, I estimate the proposed amount of relief should make those who lost their homes or received major damage whole again,” Morefield said.
The $11.4 million grant is part of the House’s amendments to the budget that Northam proposed in December and submitted to the General Assembly in the form of a budget bill that was then referred to the Appropriations Committee of the House and the Finance Committee of the Senate.
Both committees hold public hearings and discussions that may result in amendments to the proposed budget. After review by each of these committees, the amended bill is brought to the floor of each house, where other amendments may be made before a vote – a step that is expected to happen later this week.
When each chamber has voted on its own version of the budget bill it crosses over to the other chamber where it is again debated and voted on. A conference committee resolves any differences between the versions passed by the two houses, resulting in the enrolled bill that must be sent to the governor’s desk by March 10, two days before the General Assembly adjourns.
Morefield is hopeful that his proposal will survive further scrutiny in the legislature. “I have spent the last 12 years cultivating relationships in Richmond on both sides of the aisle and I am confident this will help in achieving success,” he said. “We have a moral obligation to make every effort to help everyone, especially those less fortunate.”
Staff writer Megan Schnabel contributed information to this report.