The Minnesota Legislature approved a $4.7 million disaster-relief measure on Monday, offering reimbursement checks to counties in central and southern Minnesota battered by windstorms, floods and ice storms over the spring and summer.
“Disaster relief is on its way,” Gov. Mark Dayton said in the governor’s reception room, where he signed the bill into law.
In a rare show of unanimity, the Senate quickly dispatched the disaster-relief package on a 59-0 vote, and the House followed suit, 123-1. Legislators briefly engaged over controversial new business taxes but saved that issue and their continuing political disputes for the regular legislative session next year.
“We will come together, Republicans and Democrats today, and do the right thing,” said Rep. Greg Davids, a Republican from Preston whose southeastern district was one of the hardest-hit by the late-June storms.
The bulk of the money, $4.5 million, provides the state and local share required by the federal government for cleanup and repair costs related to severe storms, straight-line winds and floods that raged through central and southern Minnesota. Total disaster relief, including federal money, amounts to $18 million.
The summer storms hit the week of June 20-26 and included wind speeds of 85 miles an hour in Swift County, an 8.25-inch rainfall in Wilkin County and numerous flooded and damaged roads. The federal disaster declaration covers the 18 counties stretching from Wilkin County on the North Dakota border to Houston and Fillmore counties in the extreme southeastern section of the state. Others included Benton, Big Stone, Douglas, Faribault, Freeborn, Grant, Hennepin, McLeod, Morrison, Pope, Sibley, Stearns, Stevens, Swift and Traverse.
The exclusion of Ramsey County accounted for the sole dissenting vote, cast by St. Paul DFL Rep. Alice Hausman.
She said her densely populated county missed qualifying because its per capita disaster costs were slightly lower than the standard set by the federal government. “Because we measure on a county basis, we’re sunk,” Hausman said. Ramsey fell $280,000 short of the $1.7 million the county needed to qualify for federal relief.
The bill also allocates $219,000 to Nobles and Rock counties and the city of Worthington for debris removal and other costs from ice storms in April.
Joe Kelly, deputy director of the state’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management division, said most of the June disaster money will repay communities for such work as debris removal and road repairs and will address problems at public buildings and water facilities. “Before the feds will give us any money, we need to prove that we spent it, to include copies of invoices and time sheets and materials lists,” he said.
Messages on taxes
A signed agreement between Dayton and legislative leaders of both parties limited Monday’s special session agenda to this single bill.
That did not stop legislators from introducing “message bills” restating the desire of GOP members to repeal new taxes on warehouse services, commercial equipment repair and telecommunications equipment passed by the DFL-controlled Legislature in May.
“This is a missed opportunity to clean up the Democrats’ man-made disaster,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. “That’s the wrong direction in a recovering economy.”
House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, responded that the state’s economy is strengthening and that the Legislature will look at the new taxes “to understand their impact” when it reconvenes in February 2014.
Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, a candidate for U.S. Senate next year, said of the business taxes: “We should be fixing this.” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said eliminating the new taxes would cost up to $313 million every two years.
“If the Republicans are really serious about repealing some of the tax provisions that were enacted this year, I think they need to show us how they would pay for it,” Bakk said.
Disaster fund needed
Lawmakers also began looking at ways to avoid having to come back to St. Paul to approve disaster-relief funds. According to Kelly, the June storm was the 19th major disaster in Minnesota since 2000. Six have come in just the last three years.
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, and Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, introduced measures to create an ongoing disaster-response account from which the state could draw to match federal funds. Those measures attracted bipartisan support. Dayton has voiced his support for the idea, but the issue won’t be dealt with until next year.
“I believe that will be forthcoming next session,” Dayton said last week. “I think there is a bipartisan recognition that this is an unnecessary expense to the taxpayers and there are better ways to handle this.”
The governor’s office studied whether it needed a special session at all, since a similar amount already had been appropriated for disaster relief. But it found that because the $4.7 million was approved for a different disaster, lawmakers would need to separately authorize use of the money for the June and April storms.
Bakk said there might be constitutional barriers to appropriating money without legislative approval. The state’s Constitution does not grant the executive branch authority to disburse funds without action by the Legislature. “I’m not sure we are going to be able to do it and still meet the intent of the constitution of the Legislature appropriating money,” Bakk said. “We’re going to explore it, and I certainly would like to accomplish that.”
Even a brief legislative session would not be complete without a reference to the Vikings stadium. Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, introduced a “message” bill that would require the team and the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Authority to provide more public information about the $975 million Vikings stadium project and the Wilf family, the team’s principal owners.
Staff writer Abby Simons contributed to this report.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger 651-925-5046.