Senate Joins House In Passing Disaster Bill

The Minnesota Legislature unanimously approved an $80 million disaster-relief package this afternoon.

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

The House voted 131-0 in favor of the funding after discussing the measure less than an hour. Senators followed 66-0 in a shorter debate. Gov. Tim Pawlenty was expected to sign the bill soon.

It was one of the fastest-ever Minnesota responses to a flood problem.

Some state representatives 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 to the new high school, which will replace the destroyed school.

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 town,” 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.

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.

Most of the bill’s money will 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 committees met throughout the morning, leading to an early-afternoon special legislative session.

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.