Jeremy Alford

Across south Louisiana, families and businesses are struggling to rebuild homes and storefronts following two years of hurricanes. At the same time, a public discussion over insurance practices is intensifying, setting the Capitol’s stage for an important discussion about housing-related issues.

“There’s no doubt the storms and recent tends have generated concerns,” said Appropriations Chair Zee Zeringue, R-Houma. “We intend to look into current practices, banking issues, the mortgage companies, temporary housing and a host of other issues. As for what (legislation) gets filed, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Several lawmakers are either eyeing possible legislation for the 2022 regular session or angling to make sure their beefs are at least heard when the House and Senate gather next year. For example, the practice of mortgage companies holding onto claim money following natural disasters is among Zeringue’s concerns, especially if the consumer is current with their loan or if the dollars arrive in a delayed fashion. “That money should go towards the ability of the homeowner to rebuild and move on with their lives,” he said.

As for ongoing challenges with the federal government and temporary housing, which Zeringue has experienced firsthand in Terrebonne Parish, the chairman said lawmakers are exploring ways to put the state in a better position to serve displaced residents. “That’s a federal thing, for sure, but there are ways we can improve our own response in the future,” he said.

A state-run sheltering program was implemented last month that has placed residents in trailers faster than the federal government. Local officials, for their part, have expressed interest in in strengthening that state-run option.

Deductibles for homeowner insurance is another targeted topic. “It seems unfair,” said Zeringue. “Why is it a percentage of the value of the home and not the damage?”

While Zeringue’s district took a beating this year with Hurricane Ida, the home turf of Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, was the site of landfall last year for Laura and Delta. “I filed an insurance bill last session that was a hard-hitting, get-your-attention, double-the-penalties bill to get insurance folks to the table,” Geymann said. “This session you’re going to see a bit more of that. Except this time the coalition is larger.”

Sen. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, echoed that sentiment. “I spoke with Zee not long ago about ways we can all come together,” he said.

Abraham has already identified a few roadblocks in southwest Louisiana that he hopes his southeast neighbors can avoid. Earlier this fall, Abraham learned school restoration projects back home were paused due to slow payments from the state and federal governments. While it was frustrating for his constituents, Abraham made appeals to protect Ida-ravaged communities from the same. “We can do better,” said Abraham.

The “lessons learned” approach has been embraced by many legislators as we approach the next regular session. Geymann, for instance, wonders if there’s any value in revisiting the state’s building codes, like lawmakers did in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “I haven’t heard if any of that will come up yet,” Geymann said.

Abraham added, “We had structures built to that code that survived, so there is merit to those codes. But I’m not sure if we’ll see any further changes.”

Sen.-elect Jeremy Stine, R-Lake Charles, who will be sworn-in soon, said the building code “absolutely needs to be revisited.”

Right now, Stine is still in the data collection phase of drafting his own legislative package. But he does have some big ideas, including the creation of an oversight board akin to the defunct Louisiana Recovery Authority. “Accountability is what we’re all looking for,” said Stine. “I also like the approach taken by Gov. Greg Abbott in Texas. They appointed a recovery czar for their most recent hurricane and it seems to be working well.”

From the pace of claim payouts and rising insurance rates to a lack of temporary housing and the bureaucracy of recovery, lawmakers have no shortage of issues to dive into ahead of the 2022 regular session. Whether or not the political will exists to make the necessary changes is unknown, but the real work begins March 14, when the House and Senate gather next in Baton Rouge.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.

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