Colorado highway funding held up by New Jersey senator

September 27, 2013
This aerial photo shows flood damage in Greeley Colo. during a helicopter tour by Vice President Joe Biden, Gov. John Hickenlooper, and FEMA officials, of flood-ravaged areas , Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/The Denver Post, Kathryn Scott Osler, Pool)
This aerial photo showing flood damage in Greeley, Colo., was taken during a Sept. 23 helicopter tour of flood-ravaged areas by Vice President Biden, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and FEMA officials. (Kathryn Scott Osler/AP pool/Denver Post)

Updated, 11:00 p.m.: Chiesa has lifted his hold, according to a spokesman. The legislation is expected to clear the Senate easily early next week.

Sen. Jeff Chiesa (R-N.J.) has placed a hold on legislation aimed at raising the cap on emergency highway funding in Colorado after flooding devastated the state earlier this month as he awaits assurances that the money won’t come out of a fund earmarked for Hurricane Sandy relief.

The legislation, sponsored by Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet (D) and Mark Udall (D), would raise the limit on the amount of highway repair money Colorado could receive to deal with the aftermath of the flood. Federal law allows states to receive up to $100 million in emergency aid. But the extent of the flood damage in Colorado means the state is likely to need more than that.

Bennet said on the Senate floor Friday that early estimates suggest the flooding caused more than $400 million in damage just to federal roadways.

“In Colorado, hundreds of miles of roads and approximately 50 major bridges and dams have been destroyed,” Udall said Friday. “There’s an arbitrary statutory cap of $100 million per disaster that applies to these funds, and this could limit the funds we receive and unnecessarily delay repairs.”

Congress has frequently lifted the cap on emergency highway funds after natural disasters. Gulf Coast states were allowed to receive more than $100 million after Hurricane Katrina, and several states got permission to go over the cap after Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Irene. After Hurricane Sandy, even Chiesa’s home state was allowed higher levels of funding.

Bennet and Udall both voted for the bill that funded Sandy relief.

But because the pot of money from which the federal funds would come was originally appropriated in the Sandy relief package, Chiesa is doing due diligence to make sure the Colorado funding doesn’t put a crimp in the money flowing to New Jersey. Chiesa has spoken with federal emergency officials, as well as both Udall and Bennet, a person close to the New Jersey Republican said. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is awaiting a letter from federal officials to assure him that Garden State funds won’t be diverted.

In comments on the Senate floor on Friday, neither Udall nor Bennet mentioned Chiesa.

“Our state will be in desperate need of these funds, just as New Jersey desperately needed these funds, just as New York desperately needed these funds,” Bennet said. “The money is already there, it’s already been appropriated. It just needs to be used for the purpose that Congress laid out.”

Christie appointed Chiesa to the Senate after Democrat Frank Lautenberg died earlier this year. Chiesa will serve in the Senate until the results of an Oct. 16 special election are certified; polls show Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) leading that race by a wide margin.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson · September 27, 2013