Obama signs disaster declaration, opening door to special session

Twenty-one southern Minnesota counties will be eligible for federal disaster assistance after President Barack Obama Wednesday night declared the area a flood disaster area.

Federal funding is available to state and local governments and some non-profit organizations for repair and replacement of facilities damaged in last month’s flooding.

The Wednesday night action in Washington opens the door for the Minnesota Legislature to meet in a special session in St. Paul in the next few days. Lawmakers are expected to appropriate $80 million to cover state and local costs not funded by the federal money.

While Wednesday’s declaration deals only with flooding that followed record rains in southern Minnesota, the legislative session also is expected to approve $6.6 million in aid to help the Wadena area recover from a June 17 tornado.

Southern Minnesotans have waited for word that they will receive federal aid for floods that were especially serious in the southeast.

“Our local officials, first responders, citizens and volunteers have done tremendous work responding to these devastating floods,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn, said. “I have seen first-hand the widespread damage that these southern Minnesota communities have endured and with this assistance, these communities can begin working to rebuild. This is a good beginning, and I will continue to work with state and federal officials for additional assistance.”

Graig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Blue Earth, Cottonwood, Dodge, Faribault, Freeborn, Goodhue, Jackson, Lincoln, Lyon, Martin, Mower, Murray, Olmsted, Pipestone, Rice, Rock, Steele, Wabasha, Waseca, Watonwan and Winona counties are eligible for federal aid.

Money also will be available for preventing future floods statewide, Fugate said.

Lawrence Sommers, who will coordinate Minnesota flood recovery, said more counties could be added to the disaster area.

Public facilities such as roads and buildings damaged by floods will be repaired or replaced by 75 percent federal funding, with the state providing the remaining 25 percent.

It was not immediately clear whether the federal flood relief will be available to home and business owners.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is expected to quickly call a special session to appropriate the state funds.

Staffs from the governor’s office and top legislators negotiated a bill to be considered by lawmakers, and Pawlenty and legislative leaders agreed to the basics this week.

The governor insists that that bill is the only one to be considered by the special session, although some legislators are proposing other items. One being promoted is a bill to fight bullying in school.

Wadena got included in the bill after policymakers originally said they only wanted flood relief discussed.

“When the governor announced that a special session would be held to aid the September flood victims, I requested that disaster relief also be provided to Wadena,” Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt, said. “Our region was devastated by the tornado, losing homes, businesses, community facilities and our high school. I’m very pleased that legislative leaders and the governor agreed to help us recover.”

Wadena money would include $5.2 million to match federal disaster relief. Another $693,000 would be given to the school district to help with additional transportation costs caused by the tornado.

Also, $750,000 would be appropriated to plan for a new community center to replace facilities the tornado destroyed. It would be near or connected to a new high school.

Skogen initially sought $20.5 million for the community center.

The flood relief portion of the bill includes $38.4 million in cash, $36.7 million in borrowed money and $5 million from a highway fund.

Wadena state tornado aid builds to $6.6 million

Information continues to trickle out about aid Wadena may receive under a state disaster bill.

The latest figure is $6.6 million for the community hits by a June 17 tornado. It would be part of an $80 million disaster-recovery bill legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Pawlenty negotiated.

The bill is to come up during a special legislative session, to be held once the federal government determines how much it will spend to help southern Minnesota recover from last month’s floods. Pawlenty said he intends the session to be no longer than a day and concentrate on flood relief.

Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt, said that federal tornado recovery funds come slower than those following floods.

“When the governor announced that a special session would be held to aid the September flood victims, I requested that disaster relief also be provided to Wadena,” Skogen said. “Our region was devastated by the tornado, losing homes, businesses, community facilities and our high school. I’m very pleased that legislative leaders and the governor agreed to help us recover.”

Wadena money would include $5.2 million to match federal disaster relief. Another $693,000 would be given to the school district to help with additional transportation costs caused by the tornado.

Also, $750,000 would be appropriated to plan for a new community center to replace facilities the tornado destroyed. It would be near or connected to a new high school.

Skogen initially sought $20.5 million for the community center.

Ethanol backers like 15% ruling, but want more

Minnesota ethanol supporters were happy when the federal government today approved allowing up to 15 percent ethanol in gasoline.

Minnesota was the first state to mandate the use of 10 percent ethanol, and has a goal of 20 percent of all gasoline sold in the state to be ethanol. The alternative fuel, now mostly made from corn, is mixed with gasoline for motor vehicle use.

“The strength of our nation is tied to the strength of our energy economy,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said. “The U.S. has the ability to be the global leader in energy because of the ingenuity of our farmers and manufacturers. Today’s announcement will help our country utilize more homegrown biofuels and decrease our dependence on foreign energy, and I will continue to push for a decision to expand the use of E15 to older vehicles as well.”

The Environmental Protection Agency announcement says that E15, as it is called, may safely be used in 2007 model year and newer vehicles. Klobuchar asked that the federal government now allow E15 to be used in cars built since 2001.

National ethanol advocates called the decision a small step toward greater ethanol use. But they questioned how effective it will be and said it could lead to motorist confusion about what fuel to buy.

Twenty-one ethanol plants operate in Minnesota, many owned by corn farmers.

Secretary of state race snapshot: photo ID

The big issue in Minnesota’s secretary of state race is clear as a picture: whether voters should present photo identification cards before casting ballots.

Republican challenger Dan Severson says that is a must to ensure fair elections and he is making it the cornerstone of his campaign.

Incumbent Democrat Mark Ritchie does not see voter fraud as a problem, points to national praise he received for handling the hotly contested 2008 U.S. Senate race and says there is more to his office, and the race, than voter photo ID.

Ritchie is wrapping up his first four-year term in the $90,227-a-year job. Severson has served the Sauk Rapids area in the state House for eight years.

Jual Carlson of the Independence Party also is in the race, but did not schedule an interview or provide information for this story.

Two statements show the two major candidates’ opposite views:

– “We have a system that doesn’t have a lot of loopholes,” Ritchie said.

– “We have a system that is not being closely monitored and is open to abuse and fraud,” Severson countered.

Ritchie said the 2008 election and recount, which he orchestrated under a national spotlight, presented “a clear picture” of where changes were needed. The Democrat said he worked with legislators and GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty to make needed absentee ballot law changes earlier this year.

With Republican and Democratic election judges at each polling place, Ritchie said, there are solid checks and balances in place to catch problems, so major changes such as photo ID should not be needed.

Republicans who supported GOP Sen. Norm Coleman’s re-election bid two years ago never found fraud in the Senate race, Ritchie said, proving the election went well.

Severson strongly hints that Ritchie helped give the 2008 election to Democrat Al Franken, who won by 312 votes after a recount and court challenge. Severson points to a constant loss of Coleman votes through the process after the GOP candidate led by more than 700 votes the morning after the election.

In the end, Ritchie said, the state recount board could not agree on how to count just 14 ballots, which he said is a good record out of nearly 3 million cast.

“The actual accuracy of the process was stunning,” the secretary said, adding that the recount was conducted in public with lawyers from both sides following every move.

Photo IDs like Severson demands would lower voter turnout, Ritchie said, because up to 200,000 Minnesotans do not have identification cards such as driver’s licenses and even more than that, such as military personnel overseas, vote by mail and a photo ID requirement may mean they could not vote.

Severson said his proposal would provide free IDs to those who need them and could take into account overseas voters.

The ex-Navy fighter pilot and lawmaker said he has traveled Minnesota to investigate and has found “many” stories about voting problems. Most could be fixed by requiring voters to show IDs, he said, something polls show a majority of Americans support.

If a photo ID card was swiped through a device, much like a credit card reader, local governments who run elections would pay for less paperwork, Severson said. Now, poll workers go through books to find voters’ names, but he said, that process would be simpler, faster and more accurate if a card were used.

The state’s same-day registration law leads to about 54,000 people not giving correct addresses, Severson said, which also could be cured by requiring a photo ID.

Republicans, including Severson, complain that current law allows a voter to vouch for up to 15 others, saying he knows they are eligible to vote. One of their fears is that illegal immigrants are shipped in to vote.

Ritchie said some of the biggest voting problems have come from felons still on probation who vote, but cannot legally do so under state law. However, he said, many of them were not even told they cannot vote.

Severson said that a Minnesota Majority study showed hundreds of felons voting. Also, he added, about 40 people appear to have voted in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Ritchie complained that too much attention was focused on rare voter fraud in the campaign.

The office’s 75 employees spend about two-thirds of their time on non-election items, mostly registering businesses. When new businesses register, the incumbent said, staff members direct them to other state and private organizations that may be of assistance.

Dan Severson

Republican Party

Age: 56

Home: Sauk Rapids.

Political experience: Eight years as Minnesota House member.

Other background: 21 years as naval officer and pilot. Substitute teacher.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in physics from numerous military schools.

Family: Wife, Cathy Jo. Two children.

Mark Ritchie

DFL Party

Age: 58.

Home: Minneapolis.

Political experience: One term as secretary of state.

Other experience: Minnesota Agriculture Department trade analyst. Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy president.

Education: Iowa State University.

Family: Wife, Nancy Gaschott.