Sandy puts Romney’s plans for FEMA in focus

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DENVER -- On Tuesday, hours after Sandy pummeled the northeast, Mitt Romney, holding a storm relief rally, ignored questions about his plans for funding the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

On Wednesday, still facing questions about his statement last year in a New Hampshire GOP primary debate about privatizing government agencies that many have interpreted to include FEMA, Romney's campaign released a statement.

"I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters," Romney said in the statement. "As president, I will ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission, while directing maximum resources to the first responders who work tirelessly to help those in need, because states and localities are in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters."

The topic has become a hot issue in the final days of the race for the White House now that FEMA is in full swing responding to Sandy, the storm that is responsible for 24 deaths and millions of dollars in damage across New Jersey and much of the northeast.

Romney, who's been marginalized for two days as news coverage of the storm has focused on the damage and a federal response led, at least symbolically, by President Barack Obama, has been vague about his plans for FEMA while continuing to stand by his position that disaster relief, and other functions of the federal government, are best handled by the states.

That, essentially, is the position Romney outlined in the CNN debate in June of last year.

"Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction," Romney said. "And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better."

On Tuesday, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein contended that both Obama and Romney would cut funding for FEMA, but that Romney's cuts would likely be far more severe.

The Ryan Budget proposed a 22 percent across the board cut to discretionary spending, which includes FEMA funds and disaster relief.

"It’s unclear whether the GOP ticket would specifically spare FEMA from broad-based cuts, Ryan’s budget would make it harder to fund disaster relief because the aid would have to be offset by budget cuts elsewhere," Klein wrote.

In September, when FOX31 Denver interviewed Ryan, we asked about proposed cuts for FEMA, which provided federal funds that allowed local Colorado communities to mostly offset the cost of fighting a string of wildfires this summer.

"We've always put money aside for emergency spending," Ryan said in the interview. "We believe in making sure the FEMA pipeline of dollars is there so these emergencies can be responded to.

"But what we saw under the first two years of the Obama administration, when he had Congress run by his party, was a huge amount of spending increases on domestic government agencies. It didn't work to create jobs."

The Romney campaign notes that, if elected, Romney would propose his own budget plan, not Ryan's; and Romney, his staff points out, has never proposed specifically cutting FEMA himself.

But his comments about privatizing federal agencies like FEMA have Democrats on the attack.

In Colorado, a state where a constitutional amendment prevents lawmakers from raising taxes, FEMA funds are even more critical, argues liberal Denver Post columnist Laura Chapin.

"Romney clearly doesn't know or doesn't care how FEMA works and what it means to states like Colorado when it comes to natural disasters," Chapin told FOX31 Denver Wednesday. "Colorado asked for help from President Obama for coping with the wildfires this summer and they got it. And because of TABOR, Colorado can't raise state funds to pay for natural disasters itself. So partnership with the federal government is absolutely critical, as Republican NJ Gov Chris Christie has acknowledged.

"We couldn't recover without it. And Romney would leave Colorado to fend for itself on wildfires, which is just shameful."