5 ways the president’s budget blueprint could change the way we respond to disasters

Earlier this year, the White House released President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 Budget Blueprint

The budget identifies an “America First” approach that prioritizes a strong military and securing our southern border. 

Within the blueprint, there are also changes that, if enacted, would dramatically change our ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters. With the details of the blueprint expected to be released in a full budget proposal in the coming weeks, here are 5 things to keep a close eye on:

Reduction in Preparedness Funds

The Budget Blueprint proposes cutting several key preparedness grant programs. On the public health side, this includes a recommendation to consolidate programs such as the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program and the Hospital Preparedness Program, with a net reduction to account for savings in administrative costs.

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We got a sneak peek of what this reduction would look like in the President’s request for the fiscal year 2017 remainder budget request where $49 million was proposed to be cut from the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program, which does not appear to have made it into the final budget.

 

Under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there are proposed cuts of $667 million for preparedness programs.

The blueprint argues that some programs are not properly authorized, have not provided measurable results, and/or that the federal grants supplant the responsibilities of states, localities and other stakeholders.

The proposed budget also includes creation of a 25 percent non-federal cost sharing for preparedness funds. This is based on similar cost sharing requirements for disaster assistance funds under the Stafford Act, but has not previously been part of budgeting for preparedness funds.

Further details of where and how these funds will be reduced will be important to look at when the full budget is released. State and local governments should also take some comfort in the fact that it is unlikely that Congress will actually uphold many of these cuts, as their states and districts will all suffer as a result.

However the intent to reduce these programs, which are easy to forget about in the absence of disasters, should not be ignored. They will likely be a recurring target for reductions throughout this administration.

Creation of a Public Health Emergency Response Fund

The creation of a public health emergency response fund has been proposed by many experts, particularly in light of the significant delay and partisan wrangling over the Zika emergency supplemental funding.

The President’s budget includes language calling for the creating of such a fund, but without any details in terms of how much, the replenishment schema, or the triggers for use. There are currently several efforts to create such a bill in the current Congress. 

Senator Cassidy has introduced a bipartisan bill to create such a fund, but it is not clear to what amount it would be funded. 21 lawmakers also submitted a letter to senior members of the House Appropriations Committee calling for a fund to be created at $300 million.

In remarks to the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute called on creation of a fund at no less than $2 billion, to be replenished as needed. 

The need to create appropriate triggers for use of the fund, also requires more attention that it has been given.

This idea for a response fund is gaining momentum and interest among legislators and policymakers. While it is a very good idea in principal, funding at too low of a level will only make it politically harder to make additional supplemental funds available.

Funding through increased transfer authorities (allowing funds to be pulled from other programs) should be a non-starter, and the triggers for use are perhaps the most important aspect that has so far been given little attention.

Elimination of the Community Development Block Grants

Although not specifically disaster funding, the Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) administered through the Department of Housing and Urban Development serve as an important vehicle for administering post-disaster funds.

The proposed elimination of this program will not directly affect allocation of disaster assistance funds, since these usually come through special appropriations. But the elimination of this vehicle means that a new process will have to be identified/created to administer billions of dollars of post disaster funds for rebuilding.

So far the Administration has simply indicated that they would figure it out.

As we have seen in many disaster responses, the availability of resources is not the same as resources getting into the hands of those who need it most quickly and efficiently. Administering taxpayer funds at this level requires mature systems of disbursement and accountability. 

The details on how disaster funds would be provided in the absence of the CDBG program requires more detail and planning in the coming budget process.

Restructuring the National Flood Insurance Program

There is mention of changing the formula of funding the National Flood Insurance Program to shift costs to states that are more affected by floods and away from states that do not share as much of the burden. This is consistent with a larger trend in the Administration to shift the burden of programs away from areas that do not benefit from them.

However it also reduces the advantages of a national insurance pool. A fundamental tenet of insurance pools is to spread risk across high and low risk policies, so that the program is more affordable for all who may potentially need it.

The debate over this program is perhaps as important as the program itself. Many argue that the program subsidizes the risk of building in flood prone areas, and that unless the true cost is reflected, we will continue to build in areas that put lives at risk. Of course, flooding projections require constant revision in the face of climate change, and any debate over government subsidy of risk to disasters will require acknowledgement of this factor in predicting risk.

Increases in funding for Cybersecurity

There are increases in cybersecurity funding proposed across several agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Justice, the Treasury and Homeland Security, among others. This is an important acknowledgement of the pervasive threat that cyber terrorism and other cyber threats present to our nation. This is also an issue that is increasingly impacting the private sector. Most experts agree that we are behind the curve on this as a nation, and our risk is only increasing with each passing day. This has been an emerging area of concern among National Security and Homeland Security experts for years, and increased funding would further our readiness for such an event.

The provision of additional resources appears to be a step in the right direction. However, better leadership, coordination with the private sector and coordination of efforts across agencies will all need to be structured into this funding if it is have the intended impact.

The president’s Blueprint Budget has the potential of significantly impacting our ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from large-scale disasters. Thinking differently is not a bad thing. 

Our requirements have changed and our knowledge of threats as well as the maturity of our response systems since 9/11 probably requires a significant revision to the way we underwrite our readiness. But this debate will need to be an open and honest one where stakeholders from all fields are engaged, and listened to. 

Many of the proposed budget cuts would be catastrophic to our national readiness and ultimately cost lives in a response. As a starting point for a serious discussion on how we conduct the business of disaster response, there are some ideas here that are worth discussing rather than dismissing outright. 

Of course, the devil is always in the details. 

Details that we are still waiting to see.

Jeff Schlegelmilch (@jeffschlegel) is the deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He has over a decade of experience in developing programs for community resilience and public health preparedness. Over that period he has advised numerous local, state and federal officials on preparedness policies and programs.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.