Department of Homeland Security

Looks like Mother Nature didn’t get the message about the budget crises in most of the states. So, she twice dumped a bunch of snow on the Midwest and East that required states, cities, and counties to plow – in between frantic calls to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for reinforcements.

The calls prompted FEMA to fire-up its fleet of snowplows and dispatch its army of snow shovel crews. Not really. FEMA doesn’t have snowplows or snow shovel crews, so why the frantic calls to Washington? Answer: FEMA has money and, when it declares a disaster, it pays for 75 percent or more of the costs. So, the calls to FEMA are really about getting taxpayers outside of the impacted states to subsidize the snow removal costs in the Midwest and East.

Unfortunately, this cost-shifting move by governors isn’t new. In 1993, FEMA started issuing a greater number of declarations for natural disasters that historically had been handled and paid for entirely by the states. Like most things, we have federalized routine natural disasters in America so that Washington subsidizes virtually every flood, fire, or tornado.

From 1981 to 1993, FEMA issued on average a meager 43 declarations per year. From 1993 to 2001, President Bill Clinton approved on average 89 FEMA declarations per year, including the record of 157 in his reelection year. To prove the bipartisanship aspect of FEMA, President George W. Bush approved on average 130 declarations per year. President Obama started strong with 108 FEMA declarations – in a year devoid of hurricanes or earthquakes.

Since 1953, FEMA has issued 294 declarations due to winter storms. Of those, 37 were issued from 1953 to 1992, roughly one winter storm declaration per year. In contrast, the other 257, or 87 percent, occurred over the last 17 years – 15 winter storm declarations annually. Clinton’s FEMA accounted for 108 of those declarations, Bush’s FEMA 128, and Obama’s FEMA has 21 so far, putting him on track for roughly 160 such declarations should he serve two terms. The problem is the money isn’t free.

The other problem is that a November rule change may prevent states from pushing their snow removal costs to FEMA. The rule for an emergency declaration requires the snowfalls to occur within a 48-hour period. The two storms that hit the Midwest and East this month were separated by about 72 hours, which means each snowstorm would have to be significant enough on its own to qualify for federal aid. In most states, they don’t. In fact, as of today, only New Jersey has qualified for a FEMA declaration. So, now the pressure will build from governors and their congressional delegations to get FEMA to waive the new rule. With all of the snow-covered states already facing enormous budget deficits, there is no money to pay for the snow removal.

With the federalization of natural disasters, states have learned they don’t have to plan or set aside funds. FEMA will pay. This mentality is what has us in the fiscal mess we are in. It is high time this federalization movement comes to a halt and for states to plan and budget for their known costs.