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Tax reform codifies fairness model for resilient-building advocates

California and New York officials groused at the state and local tax (SALT) deductibility cap in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Proponents of the new law rightly noted how the rest of the country had subsidized those and a few other states whose residents could lower their federal income tax liabilities by itemizing state and/or local income and property tax payments.

Arguments supporting SALT deductibility cap equity parallel discussion of construction quality, resilient building design and state-mandated adoption of model codes in Washington, D.C. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is tackling disaster and mitigation planning as lawmakers scrutinize escalating outlays for disaster rebuilding. If they can limit federal subsidies to taxpayers subject to high SALT rates, why can’t the White House and Congress also reset rebuilding dollar criteria so states and localities tighten codes as a hedge against future disasters—and resist past tendencies to go hat in hand to Washington?

In his mid-January “Investing in Mitigation to Build a More Resilient Nation” commentary, FEMA Acting Deputy Administrator Daniel Kaniewski notes how flooding, hurricanes and wild fires affected 25 million-plus Americans in 2017. The year highlighted the need for change in the way the country prepares for and mitigates against future hazards, he contends, adding, “Investing before the next disaster is the key to building a more resilient nation. Federal mitigation grants save $6 per $1 spent, [while] exceeding building codes saves $4 per $1 spent.”

Kaniewski references the National Institute of Building Sciences’ just-released “Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2017 Interim Report.” It demonstrates how building new construction beyond code requirements in one year equates to national savings of $15.5 billion, mirroring the $4 saved : $1 spent metric. “FEMA is committed to investing in mitigation activities, and our leadership team sees mitigation as the cornerstone of how we build more prepared communities,” he affirms.

His agency chairs the Mitigation Framework Leadership Group, which promotes coordination of mitigation efforts across the federal government. It opened the “Draft National Mitigation Investment Strategy” to public comment last month, initiating a discussion on how to improve natural hazard mitigation investments to better protect lives, communities and property. The document stresses “data- and risk-informed decisions that include lifetime costs and risks.”

Capping a list of Mitigation Investment Strategy target outcomes: The built environment—whether gray or nature-based infrastructure, and including lifeline infrastructure, buildings and homes—becomes more resilient and promotes community resilience. To that end, authors cite passage and enforcement of up-to-date model building codes.

FEMA measures and Mitigation Investment Strategy validate the work of the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association and closely aligned Build With Strength coalition. As leading quality-construction proponents in Washington, D.C., they seek to ingrain resilient-building practice across federal agencies. “Incentivizing stronger, more durable construction of today’s residential and commercial buildings increases occupant safety, reduces costs associated with maintenance and reconstruction, and reduces their environmental footprint,” NRMCA asserts.

The Build With Strength coalition assisted federal lawmakers on the National Mitigation Investment Act, which addresses FEMA and National Institute of Building Sciences points, along with a growing taxpayer burden: The federal government’s shouldering of a disproportionate share of natural disaster costs, presently about 75 percent versus barely 5 percent in 1955. The National Mitigation Investment Act, the coalition notes, “creates a first-of-its-kind program within FEMA to provide states and localities the opportunity to apply for grants to defray the cost of implementing and enforcing strong building codes.”

Those grants sound like a good investment to ultimately shield taxpayers coast to coast from picking up rebuilding tabs in states and cities where leaders are too derelict to demand construction methods and materials equal to foreseeable disasters.