By Jim Ragsdale and Rachel E. Stassen-Berger
The Minnesota Legislature, back in town for a one-day special session on Monday, approved $4.7 million in disaster relief from windstorms, floods and ice storms earlier this year.
The Minnesota Senate passed the disaster relief bill 59-0 and immediately adjourned. The House followed suit, approving the measure 127-1.
The bulk of the bill, $4.5 million, provides the state and local “match” required by the federal government for costs related to late-June severe storms, straight-line winds and floods that hit a broad area of central and southern Minnesota.
"We will come together Republicans and Democrats today and do the right thing," said Rep. Greg Davids, a Republican whose Preston area district was one of the hardest hit by the June storms.
The storms occurred June 20-26 and included wind speeds of 85 miles per hour in Swift County, 8.25-inch rainfalls reported in Wilkin County and numerous flooded and damaged roadways. The federal disaster declaration, applying to counties that can receive the funds, includes 18 counties stretching from Wilkin county on the North Dakota border to Houston and Fillmore counties in the extreme southeastern section of the state.
Joe Kelly, deputy director of the state’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management division, said most of the money will repay costs already incurred for such work as debris removal, road repairs and addressing problems at public buildings and water facilities.
The bill also appropriates $219,141 from the general fund for debris clearance and other disaster costs in Nobles and Rock counties and the city of Worthington. These costs stem from ice storms in April.
A signed agreement between Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders of both parties limited the special session agenda to this single bill.
That did not stop some legislators from introducing “message bills” aimed at requiring the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Authority, which is building a new Vikings stadium, to provide the public with more information about the project and the financial condition of the team’s principal owners, the Wilf family, and at repealing taxes passed during the regular Legislative session.
While support for disaster relief brought unanimous support, the question of repealing taxes was more fractured.
Earlier this year, the Legislature approved and Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law new business-to-business taxes, including a new sales tax on farm equipment repair and a tax on warehousing. Republicans, and some Democrats, brought forward measures to undo those new taxes.
“We should be fixing this,” Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said on the Senate floor.
While Dayton has said he did not support the new taxes, neither he nor Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, promised they would dump the taxes next year when the Legislature comes back into session in late February.
"If the Republicans are really serious about repealing some of the tax provision that were enacted this year, I think they need to show us how they would pay for it," Bakk said. He said it would cost $313 million to get rid of the new taxes. "We just don't have $313 million sitting around."
The counties listed in the disaster declaration, who qualify for the bulk of the $4.5 million, are: Benton, Big Stone, Douglas, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Grant, Hennepin, Houston, McLeod, Morrison, Pope, Sibley, Stearns, Stevens, Swift, Traverse and Wilkin.
Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, noted that her home county of Ramsey missed qualifying because its reported costs were slightly lower than the per-capita standard set by the federal government. She said the county was about “280,000 short” of the level needed to qualify. Hausman was the only 'no' vote on the disaster relief bill.
Officials said it is possible Ramsey can still qualify, particularly if costs incurred by school districts were not included in the county’s total. While the deadline for applications has ended, Kelly said, it is still possible to appeal and include other projects.
Kelly said the total pot of money is “almost exclusively a reimbursement program,” meaning local agencies are compensated for repair and recovery work already done. “Before the feds will give us any money, we need to prove that we spent it, to include copies of invoices, and timesheets, and materials lists,” he said.