The Minnesota Legislature will return to work this summer to direct disaster state aid to the flood-battered Arrowhead.
Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders from both parties met on Wednesday to lay the groundwork for a special session in the last two weeks of August. Legislators will need to come up with millions of dollars to match expected federal disaster funds and possibly millions more to aid the families, communities and businesses still struggling to recover from June's 500-year flood.
Leaders from both parties agreed that the session will be short, focused and nonpartisan.
"When there's a disaster, we're not Republicans, we're not Democrats, we're all Minnesotans," Dayton told reporters after an hourlong meeting with legislators at the Capitol.
Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem agreed. "When disaster strikes, Minnesota comes together," the Rochester Republican said. "Not only its people -- friends, neighbors helping other affected friends and neighbors -- but also its government."
But not all Republicans were willing to set aside other issues. Some, outraged by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's recent decision to reword the language on proposed amendments they had just passed, have floated the idea of using the special session as a platform to raise their political concerns. Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, suggested attaching an amendment to the flood relief bill that would rescind the secretary of state's ability to alter ballot language.
But legislative leaders, who have traveled together to visit the hardest-hit communities, said firmly on Wednesday that disaster aid would not be hindered by politics.
"We all get in that sandbox and we punch pretty hard and they punch back and elbows are sharp," said House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, referring to the regular legislative session. To do the same in a special session for disaster relief "would be a disservice to those people that have had their lives completely disrupted, completely upended and have no idea where they're going to go, what they're going to do, how they're going to provide for themselves. I don't think that would be appropriate."
The state is still trying to tally the damage from the floods that rocked Duluth and 13 surrounding counties last month. The state has asked the federal government to declare the region a disaster zone and provide $108 million in disaster aid.
The Obama administration has declared a federal disaster in northeast Minnesota and promised aid. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide 75 percent of funding and require a 25 percent match from the state. Because the Legislature does not reconvene in regular session until early 2013, a special session is required to expedite funding.
Senjem said the session would likely last just one day, with the flood-relief bill worked out in advance. Ground rules are important when it comes to special sessions, since only a governor can call one but only the legislators can end it. "We'll know going into it what we're going to talk about and what the parameters are," Senjem said.
Dayton said the Legislature might also steer disaster aid to communities outside the flood zone: areas hit by earlier disasters like the Sartell paper mill fire or the tornado that struck Wadena two years ago.
Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049