Open or closed? State leaders debate planning disaster bill

State leaders agree they want to provide financial aid to communities affected by summer storms, but disagree about whether the public should be invited to meetings producing the legislation.

The Dayton administration and a few legislators soon are to begin developing plans to help Minnesota communities recover. The governor’s office says those meetings will be closed to the public.

“Legislation is not typically prepared in public meetings,” Dayton Press Secretary Katharine Tinucci said. “A relatively small group of legislators and staff will be working to prepare legislation for a special session, and they will be working closely with other legislators and civic leaders from the affected areas, to make sure that their needs are met.”

House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, disagreed that legislation normally is produced in private, but said specifics about how the meetings will be conducted have not been set.

Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said he is a strong advocate for meeting in public.

“As we go forward with this, it would be well if we opened it up, let the citizens of the state of Minnesota observe this process,” Senjem said. “We want to put the bill together in the light of day not in the dark of night.”

The senator said last year’s private budget negotiations with Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders did not work out well, and ended with a government shutdown.

“There is no reason in my mind that this should not be open,” Senjem added.

Whether open or closed, the meetings are to produce a package funding government recovery costs from June’s northeast and southeast Minnesota flood and other storm damage, and perhaps early July’s northern Minnesota wind damage. The completed package is expected to be approved in a late-August special legislative session.

A Wednesday federal decision also likely will be discussed. Federal officials rejected Minnesota’s request to financially help individuals affected by last month’s floods.

Dayton Wednesday evening said he will appeal the federal rejection.

“I believe this was the wrong decision, and I am deeply disappointed,” Dayton said. “We will begin working on an appeal immediately.”

The request was for people who live in St. Louis, Carlton, Aitkin, Crow Wing, Lake and Pine counties as well as for those in the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said that the state has not approved individual assistance for past disasters, but he wants to look at a specific situation: septic systems.

Floods can ruin the systems, sending pollution into the streams and lakes, said Howes, chairman of the House public works committee and a key lawmaker in writing a disaster-relief package.

Howes said he wants to examine whether the state could provide low-interest loans to fix private septic systems.

Dean said the state can help speed relief, but traditionally does not give money to individuals.

“We want to make sure the agencies are doing everything they can to help individual property owners and business owners to deal with their insurance companies and getting up and running,” Dean said.

The federal government earlier declared 13 counties in the northeast and just south of the Twin Cities disaster areas from last month’s floods. That decision will provide federal aid to pay local governments’ cost in recovering from the storms, but does not provide help to individuals or businesses.

Dayton and top lawmakers say they expect a one-day legislative session to approve the pre-written aid package.

Howes said he thinks two or three meetings will be needed to put together the finance plan.

Tinucci said despite the meetings being closed to the public, “I expect there will be ample opportunity for public input before the special session takes place.”

The state estimates that government facilities sustained at least $108 million in June storm damage. Federal funds are expected to pay for 75 percent of that, with the state kicking in the rest.

The Dayton administration has asked federal officials to assess damage from July 2-4 wind storms in northern Minnesota that especially damaged and destroyed trees in Beltrami and Itasca counties. The disaster declaration would include five counties and two American Indian reservations.

State leaders said they may consider other disaster-related legislation, including help for a paper plant destroyed by fire and funds for Wadena and Rushford, still recovering from previous weather damage.

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