House OKs Flood, Tornado Disaster Bill

Reps. Bernie Lieder of Crookston, left, and Andrew Falk of Murdock take time to chat before voting on a disaster-relief bill.

The Minnesota House unanimously approved an $80 million disaster-relief package this afternoon, with the Senate expected to follow shortly.

Most of the money is to go to southern Minnesota communities affected by flooding last month.

Some state representatives complained that Republicans opposed to federal money were hypocritical when they accepted Washington funds for disaster relief. Others were critical of the $6.6 million in the bill that was pegged for Wadena and other communities affected by June tornados.

Rep. Bev Scalze, DFL-Little Canada, said Wadena’s plans to build a new community center to replace facilities destroyed by the June 17 tornado are inappropriate.

“A desire for a changed location is not a disaster,” she said. “We should focus on flood relief for people who did not have enough insurance to cover their loses.”

The bill contains $750,000 for Wadena to plan for a community center to combine swimming pool, ice rink, meeting rooms and other facilities destroyed in June. The new center would be next top the new high school, which will replace the destroyed school.

The House debate lasted less than a hour.

Most of the discussion centered on last month’s floods.

Zumbro Falls Mayor Alan VanDeWalker’s voice cracked as he told a Senate committee this morning about last month’s flood.

“This has basically wiped out my down,” the 20-year veteran mayor said as state lawmakers began to look into funding disaster relief for southern Minnesota floods and a June 17 tornado outbreak.

All businesses in the southeast Minnesota community were wiped out, along with half of the homes.

It was the beginning of a series of emotional comments to committees throughout the morning.

The committee also heard from Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden, who said more than 200 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged in the record June tornado event.

Wadena wants to build a new community center to replace several facilities destroyed in June, including a hockey rink and swimming pool.

“The fun things to do in Wadena are gone,” Wolden said.

Legislators today looked at an $80 million disaster appropriation during what was supposed to be a special session that lasts for just a few hours.

Most of the money would go to southern Minnesotans who endured floods last month, but $6.6 million is set aside for Wanda and other areas affected by the June tornadoes.

Legislative committee meetings throughout the morning were to culminate with a 1 p.m. special legislative session that Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislative leaders said should be limited to nothing more than disaster response.

Much of the funding is to fill the gap left after federal money pays 75 percent of costs to repair or replace public facilities ranging from buildings to roads to debris removal. There also are funds in the bill, which legislative leaders and Pawlenty agreed to last week, to help schools that face the prospect of fewer students and higher transportation costs from the disasters, as well as tax breaks and deadline extensions for some of those affected.

The only federal aid approved for individuals is a low-interest loan program from the Small Business Administration. The SBA also will provide loans to businesses of any size and non-profit organizations.

A broader federal program to help individuals affected by floods was not approved, but the still bill does target some money to individuals.

Some legislators have talked about passing other bills, primarily one getting tough on bullying in schools. However, legislative leaders frowned on that and pledged to limit the session to disaster relief.