McCain, GOP Governors Split Over Disaster Fund

 
A congressional proposal to create a national "catastrophe fund" to help states recover from natural disasters has put Republican presidential hopeful John McCain at odds with a handful of GOP governors - including two state chief executives frequently mentioned as possible vice-presidential picks for the U.S. senator from Arizona.

The proposed catastrophe fund, which has cleared the U.S. House of Representatives but is stalled in the Senate, would set up an emergency cash reserve accessible by states seeking to rebuild after catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina or last year's rampant wildfires in Idaho and elsewhere in the West. The fund would be federally managed and built up over time with payments from private insurance companies.

McCain and other members of Congress oppose the plan, because they say it would unnecessarily expand the role of the federal government into the private insurance marketplace and benefit some states more than others. Critics point out that about 80 percent of all property in Florida, for example, lies in coastal, hurricane-prone areas, while other states rarely face natural disasters and would have far less incentive for helping set up a national fund.

But the idea has won the support of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and the Southern Governors' Association, who last year passed a resolution pushing the plan ( see Editor's Note below ). The association is made up of 16 governors, including eight Republicans who have endorsed McCain and will work to get him elected in November: Alabama's Bob Riley, Florida's Charlie Crist, Georgia's Sonny Perdue, Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, Mississippi's Haley Barbour, Missouri's Matt Blunt, South Carolina's Mark Sanford and Texas' Rick Perry.

Two of those chief executives, Crist and Jindal, are considered among the top contenders for the No. 2 slot on the Republican ticket.

Southern governors and others who support a national fund say it would benefit every state, because disasters are not limited to Gulf Coast hurricanes and can range from earthquakes in California to tornadoes in the Midwest. Having a government-backed financial safety net in place, they say, also would allow insurance companies to reduce premiums in areas where rates have skyrocketed in recent years amid predictions of destructive weather.

Florida and California already have their own state catastrophe funds intended to provide a cash reserve in the event of a disaster, while at least seven other states - Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York and Texas - are exploring similar funds, according to ProtectingAmerica.org, which advocates in favor of catastrophe funds.

Even in states that already have their own funds, however, leaders are pushing for a national cash reserve, because they say it would pool together funds from across the country and provide a bigger backstop if a catastrophe happens. Democratic Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius this month became the latest governor to join in the call for a national fund, calling it a "comprehensive approach" that would help the nation prepare for disasters before they happen.

Policy questions aside, the disagreement between McCain and Southern governors from his own party over a national catastrophe fund has landed both sides in an awkward political position, particularly as the general-election campaign begins in earnest and hurricane season ramps up.

The presumptive Republican nominee for president has spoken out against an idea that remains popular among many Gulf Coast voters - especially in the election-year battleground of Florida - while Southern GOP governors align with Obama on the subject. McCain's position also could complicate the vice-presidential prospects of Crist or Jindal, who have been among the most vocal supporters of a federally managed catastrophe fund.

While a number of Southern governors have been mentioned as possible choices for the No. 2 slot on the GOP ticket, Crist and Jindal have attracted more attention than the others. The two governors last month joined former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) at McCain's home in Arizona for a social weekend widely interpreted as the candidate's vetting of his top choices.

Crist and Jindal both have campaigned on the issue of a national catastrophe fund and have lobbied for it on Capitol Hill. As a congressman running for governor last year, Jindal co-sponsored the legislation that would create the fund and has since cleared the U.S. House. Crist, meanwhile, even submitted a videotaped question to a CNN/YouTube debate among Republican presidential candidates last November, asking whether each candidate would support such a fund.

Nowhere has the question of a national catastrophe fund attracted more support than in hurricane-prone Florida, and Democrats in the state already are working to gain an advantage from McCain's opposition to it. The state Democratic Party recently released an Internet video, called " Hurricane McCain ," that attacks McCain's position and includes footage of Crist and Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum, speaking in support of a national catastrophe fund.

At one point in the 90-second clip, McCollum directly criticizes McCain as "out of touch with the needs of Florida voters."

Florida Democrats say they plan to step up the attacks on McCain and Crist over the fund ahead of the general election. If McCain ultimately selects Crist as a running mate, meanwhile, "it would be an enormous opportunity to draw the issue to the forefront, and to really show people what Charlie Crist stands for," said Mark Bubriski, a spokesman with the Florida Democratic Party.

Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, said the subject of a catastrophe fund is a "really important issue" to Florida voters and could damage McCain in the state. Crist, for his part, has been able to deflect any criticism over his support for McCain, despite their differences over the fund, according to Jewett.

"It doesn't seem like anything hurts his popularity," Jewett said. "For a Republican in this (political) climate, that's pretty good. He just has a way of somehow maintaining his popularity."

Editor's note : The Southern Governors' Association, which represents the governors of 16 Southern states, last year passed a resolution expressing support for a national catastrophe fund. But a spokesman for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R), who is a member of the group, said Sanford did not support the association's resolution.

 
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