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After flooding, momentum builds for a special session

  • Article by: Mark Brunswick
  • Star Tribune
  • August 21, 2007 - 12:29 AM

Severe flood damage in southeastern Minnesota has strengthened the resolve of lawmakers to hold a special session to deal with the aftermath of the flooding and the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge.

After waters recede and damage can be assessed, it is likely that significant infrastructure repairs will be needed, including remote township roads, state highways and bridges.

A special legislative session -- possibly in late September -- might focus narrowly on transportation issues. But it could grow to include the resurrection of a vetoed tax bill providing state aid to local governments and property tax relief.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said Monday the flooding adds to the need to have a transportation package in place before the Legislature convenes in February. With multiple jurisdictions involved in widespread cleanup and recovery, the state will clearly have a role and the need will be felt sooner rather than later, she said.

"We have a duty as legislators to make sure that Minnesotans are safe in their communities as well as making sure that our public institutions like the Transportation Department, like our local units of government, are able to do their jobs that they need to do," Kelliher said.

"We obviously would have liked to see these things happen much sooner. We just have to move on from where we are."

It has been an almost apocalyptic year for the state. In March, the Little Minnesota River flooded along the state's western border. Wildfires burned more than 110 square miles of northeastern Minnesota and Canada in May. Then on Aug. 1 the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed, killing at least 13 people, injuring scores and closing a traffic artery for 140,000 vehicles a day.

The weekend storms across southern Minnesota have killed at least six, forced many to evacuate their homes and washed out roads and infrastructure in numerous communities.

After the bridge collapse, Gov. Tim Pawlenty indicated an interest in a special session and an openness to compromise on his past rejection of a gas-tax increase to support transportation spending. On Monday, Pawlenty's office was noncommittal on the prospects of an expanded special session.

"The focus right now is on the response and recovery. Other issues will be addressed soon," said Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung.

Only the governor can call a special session, but once it has been convened only the Legislature can decide when to end it.

A broader special session that might include a tax bill does have some bipartisan support. Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, said Monday the Legislature could enact a tax bill -- probably without an inflation provision that moved Pawlenty to veto the bill.

Day said a special session for flood issues is "almost a given," particularly if it is in late September after state officials know more about the potential costs of cleanup and recovery.

The vetoed tax bill now looms heavy on the horizon when the Legislature convenes next year. Day suggested it should be dealt with sooner.

"My problem is then we come back and we start opening up the whole big tax bill and we start arguing about it all over again," he said. "We would have had it done with and we'd be zeroing in on bridges and floods and roads. Getting some of these things out of the way is good."

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636

Mark Brunswick • mbrunswick@startribune.com

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