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Continued: Special session for flood relief will convene Friday

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE and JENNIFER , BROOKS
  • Last update: August 22, 2012 - 9:44 PM

Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders, moving quickly and with little partisan squabbling, agreed to meet in special session on Friday to pass a $167.5 million flood relief package for Duluth, northeastern Minnesota and other areas hit by flash floods and windstorms in June and July.

"This is all going to help people and repair the damage that was done," Dayton said, in announcing the agreement Wednesday. "We're hopefully going to help provide a safety net to help people survive this."

Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, who co-chaired a working group on flood relief, hailed the agreement. "I think that disaster relief is a bipartisan issue," she said. "We want to make sure that part of our state is not going to be struggling under the effects of a disaster that was no fault of their own."

Duluth and northeastern Minnesota were deluged by record downpours June 19-21, and the flash floods caused widespread damage to roads, homes, businesses and park facilities. No one died in the floods, which also hit western and south-central Minnesota a few days earlier, but 1,700 homes sustained some damage and 17 were destroyed. President Obama declared 15 counties and three tribal governments to be a major disaster area.

The relief package also will cover severe windstorm damage in north-central Minnesota in early July, which knocked down trees and electrical lines.

The package includes millions of dollars in aid to homeowners and small businesses who were denied federal relief funds when the Federal Emergency Management Agency ruled that the flood damage was not severe enough for individual assistance. Dayton, who toured the stricken communities, was quick to point out that even this state aid won't be enough to fix everything the floods destroyed.

The state package will be supplemented by FEMA assistance for damage to public facilities, which has been estimated at $105 million. Another $20 million in federal funds could be available statewide to prevent future flood damage.

"Nobody can make them whole for the damages that have occurred -- lost housing, lost businesses," Dayton said. "The concern in the smaller towns I visited was that the smaller businesses would just not come back. So we'll have to see. But it's going to go as far as possible and it's going to go beyond what FEMA was willing to do."

The 201-member Legislature adjourned its regular session on May 10, and once legislators are out of session, only the governor can summon them back into a special session.

Limited agenda

Because a governor cannot limit a session once it is called, Dayton sought and received a signed agreement from DFL and GOP leaders of both houses for a one-day session beginning at 2 p.m. Friday. It will be limited to the disaster relief bill as agreed upon by the leaders, and a related technical corrections bill. Once the disaster bill is finalized, no changes will be allowed.

"No other votes will be permitted and no other bills ... will be passed," the agreement reads. It was signed by Dayton; Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester; House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove; Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.

The bill is about $28 million smaller than Dayton's original request. Some of the money was not included in the final bill because agencies were able to cancel pending projects and shift money in their budgets without requiring additional state funding, Dayton said. Most of the funds will come from state reserves.

"These are not numbers that we conjured up," Dayton said. "This is the extent of the damage, as the agencies and other experts were able to define it. ... In the past, the previous emergencies, the funding provided for small-business recovery was insufficient because the needs were greater than we understood at the time. We needed a bit of a cushion."

Members of the Duluth and northern Minnesota delegations were not consulted before the flood damages were reduced.

"It's disappointing," said Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, whose constituents have been rebuilding on their own and looking forward to state assistance to help them offset the expense of repairing flooded businesses and basements. "But this is obviously better than nothing. ... It really gives local government room to breathe."

Among other things, Reinert said, the bill will help local governments buy out properties left uninhabitable by the flood and provide 10-year, forgivable loans to help homeowners pay for the cost of drying out flooded basements, homes and businesses.

"The good news is, people have not waited" to start rebuilding after the disaster, Reinert said. "Primarily, what this will help us do is help make local governments and individuals whole again. ... I don't think anybody expects government to make things 100 percent the way they were [before the flood] ... but this is going to do a lot."

'A lot of money'

Unused aid will be returned to the general fund, Dayton said.

Robling, whose committee originally expressed "sticker shock" at the cost of the relief effort, said all parties wanted to make sure legitimate needs were met, while being careful about how state money will be spent. "It is a lot of money," Robling said, "but apparently, there is a lot of damage, and it's going to take a lot of resources to fix it."

The agreement came after lengthy negotiations with House and Senate leaders. In the end, despite some members wanting to address other issues -- such as Rep. Kerry Gauthier's sex scandal -- all sides agreed to a limited session.

The final agreement came at 11:27 a.m., with Dayton calling a news conference to announce the special session three minutes later.

The language of the final bill was not released, but earlier versions included funding for the state match for federal dollars; money to repair state roads and bridges that were washed out or damaged; an investment fund to help businesses recover; funds for erosion control; loans to homeowners for repairs, and funding to repair or rebuild park structures such as the swinging bridge in Jay Cooke State Park destroyed by the raging St. Louis River.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042 Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049

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