Insurance industry out in force to press lawmakers on disaster aid bill

“Do something now, before the storms hit.” 

That’s the message that Jimi Grande and members of the BuildStrong Coalition are bringing to Capitol Hill this week as they lobby for legislation that would guarantee extra disaster aid to states that strengthen their building codes.

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The coalition plans to blanket Washington with op-eds and print ads this week in favor of the legislation. Lobbyists with the group hope the memory of Hurricane Sandy — which inflicted costly damage on the East Coast — will galvanize lawmakers to action before the summer storm season begins.

Jimi Grande, the coalition’s chairman, said Sandy should have been a “wake-up call for Washington.” 

“I think it has and will continue to be, as will the next natural disaster that hits us,” said Grande, who is also senior vice president of federal and political affairs for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies.

The coalition is pushing the Safe Building Code Incentive Act, which Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) plans to introduce this week in the House and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) plans to bring forward this week in the Senate.

 The bill would provide an additional 4 percent in disaster grant funding to states that adopt and enforce nationally recognized building codes. Diaz-Balart, who hails from a state often affected by hurricanes, said the legislation would encourage construction that can better withstand natural disasters.

“This to incentivize states to create these building codes, which have the effect of saving money and saving lives. It’s not rocket science, but that’s what we are trying to do,” Diaz-Balart said. “It’s not a mandate to the state. It’s an incentive for the states to do so.”

 Democratic Rep. Albio Sires of New Jersey, a state that bore the brunt of Sandy’s wrath, will co-sponsor the bill with Diaz-Balart when it’s introduced, according to a Sires aide. 

 Along with the media campaign and fly-in visits, BuildStrong plans to have a witness testify on Wednesday at a hearing of a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee. On Thursday, the coalition will stage an event with the Congressional Fire Services Institute to highlight the importance of building codes. 

 The coalition will cap off the lobbying push on Thursday when executives from USAA, State Farm, Travelers Insurance, Nationwide Insurance and Allstate visit House and Senate offices to lobby for the legislation.

The insurance industry has a financial stake in the adoption of tougher building codes. Stronger structures take less damage during storms, leading to lower repair costs and fewer insurance claims.

 “You don’t have to replace a whole house, just a few shingles instead. It saves a lot of money,” Grande said. “If insurers have to spend a lot of money to save your house, the rates are going to go up for everyone else. It’s simple math.”

 BuildStrong says the legislation would also be a money-saver for the federal government. The group released a study last year that found disaster aid costs could have been reduced up to $13 billion over the past 20 years, had the buildings hit by hurricanes been up to model codes.

 Insurance companies won’t be alone in their campaign for the bill, as the Congressional Fire Services Institute is also backing the legislation.

 Close to 2,000 fire service leaders will visit Capitol Hill on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss their issues, including the disaster aid legislation, according to Bill Webb, executive director of the institute.

 “Stronger building codes protect the public. They protect the fire service. Any time there is a natural disaster, the fire service puts its lives on the line,” Webb said. “It’s like what Ben Franklin once said, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’ That’s what this bill is about to me.”  

 The building code legislation garnered bipartisan support in the last Congress. In June 2011, Diaz-Balart introduced the bill with Reps. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) and Sires as original co-sponsors, and ended up garnering 42 co-sponsors. Menendez  introduced the companion bill in the Senate after Sandy hit the Northeast. 

 The Florida Republican is looking to move the bill again this Congress and says it should have broad appeal to lawmakers. 

 “The reality is it affects everybody because it also deals with earthquakes and tornadoes, etc.,” Diaz-Balart said. “It’s very clear we can minimize the loss of life and of property and therefore also the expenditure of tax money to just have building codes that reflect reality and are enforced.”

 Supporters of the bill said the congressional process of rushing emergency funding to the House and Senate floor when disasters strike is not ideal. The smart approach, they say, would be to prepare for storms and other catastrophes before they hit.