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Hurricane Dolly

More Perry privatization problems

Insert your favorite cliche about being shocked.

The state of Texas has quietly outsourced the management of more than $1 billion in federal disaster recovery funds to an engineering firm with close ties to Gov. Rick Perry’s administration, paying the Kansas City, Mo. -based firm HNTB $45 million so far to process infrastructure grants for communities damaged by Hurricanes Dolly and Ike.

The company’s billings threaten to exhaust the amount budgeted for administrative and planning costs, while only 20 percent of the first round of money released to Texas to aid disaster recovery grants has been spent three years after the storms. Based on the state’s original timeline, at least half those projects should have been completed by now, federal officials say.

The problems have caused officials with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to voice alarm and begin quarterly reviews in an attempt to get the program back on track.

Hiring a private firm to handle what has been termed the largest public works project in the state’s history is unusual, federal officials say.

[…]

[HNTB] was the principal consultant for Perry’s first — and largest — pet project as governor, the proposed $184 billion Trans-Texas Corridor, which succumbed to widespread public opposition in 2010. Since 2008, the Texas Department of Transportation has paid HNTB $109 million for engineering consulting services, according to records with the state comptroller. Ray Sullivan, communications director for Perry’s presidential campaign, has been a lobbyist for HNTB.

The firm is one of 139 major “crossover donors” identified by Texans for Public Justice who have contributed substantial sums to Perry and the Republican Governors Association, which Perry has twice chaired. According to campaignmoney.com, HNTB and its executives have given more than $500,000 to the association, which has sent $4 million to Perry’s political campaigns.

Business as usual. I’m so inured to this that the only aspect of it that’s making me raise an eyebrow is that this was an out of state firm. What, there’s no one in Texas good enough for Rick Perry to funnel government money to? I don’t know what else to say. Read the whole thing, and kudos to the Statesman for putting it together. Forrest Wilder, who’s written before about our disastrous hurricane relief efforts, has more.

I hate you! I need disaster relief!

Care to guess who is the biggest requestor of federal disaster relief funds since 2001? Why, none other than Governor Rick “Secession 4 Eva!” Perry, that’s who.

According to FEMA’s website, Texas has been the site of 13 “major disaster declarations” since Perry took office following George W. Bush’s departure in 2001. That includes five instances of severe storms and flooding, two tropical storms, one “extreme wildfire threat,” and Hurricanes Claudette, Rita, Dolly, and Ike. (Texas received significant federal assistance following Hurricane Katrina, but it did not appear on FEMA’s website in the “major disaster declaration” category.)

David Riedman, a public information specialist at FEMA, explained to me that a major disaster declaration is issued when a governor “determines the state’s resources are overrun.” From that point forward, the federal government, under federal law, is required to reimburse the state for at least 75 percent of the cost of recovery. Help is primarily targeted at rebuilding roads and bridges, debris removal, and reparing damage to public buildings. In the relief efforts that are still under way from the damage done by Hurricane Ike, the federal government is reimbursing Texas for 100 percent of all expenses, according to Riedman.

In fact, since FEMA’s record-keeping began, Texas has received federal disaster assistance more times than any other state.

Is it possible to wear out the word “hypocrite”. I mean, actually render it unusable due to too many invocations of it? If such a thing can be done, Rick Perry will be the cause.

By the way, even Sarah Palin is accepting stimulus funds for unemployment insurance. It’s just so hard to remain pure these days, isn’t it?

Hurricane relief spending

So as noted, hurricane relief has been designated as emergency items by Governor Perry for the Legislature. They will have their work cut out for them.

Ike and two other hurricanes — Dolly and Gustav — struck Texas last year and took a $1.7 billion chunk out of the current state budget, legislative analysts told the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.

The news may force lawmakers to tighten spending even further for the 2010-11 budget cycle or dig deeper into the state’s rainy day savings account.

I’m sorry, but I don’t see how this is even remotely a difficult choice. We have over $9 billion in the Rainy Day Fund. Hurricane damage would seem to me to be the epitome of that fund’s purpose – you can’t get much rainier than a hurricane, after all. Especially in tough times, when across the board cutbacks are already being proposed, why wouldn’t you use the Rainy Day Fund for hurricane relief? I really can’t think of a good reason.

Complicating the picture is the uncertainty over the state’s continuing effort to persuade the federal government to pick up much of the hurricane tab.

Most of the state’s storm-related costs, $1.6 billion, were blamed on Ike. They include damages to buildings and other facilities, overtime and travel expenses for state troopers and other emergency workers, evacuation costs and emergency supplies.

[…]

Much of the money could be reimbursed by the federal government, but state officials remain in a protracted dispute with Washington over how much the Federal Emergency Management Agency should pay.

Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger blamed the dispute with FEMA for Texas’ failure to pay $134 million still owed bus companies and other vendors who helped the state during the Ike emergency.

Following questions raised by Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, she said the bills will be paid.

“Is the credit bureau calling us?” Ogden asked “We are not broke. Why aren’t we paying these bills?”

The potential federal reimbursement to state government for hurricane-related expenses could be as much as $1 billion, the Legislative Budget Board estimated.

I don’t even know what to say about this. The amount in dispute is, relatively speaking, a pittance. An amount eight times as much hinges on it. What the hell are we doing?