Lawmakers taking last look at proposed disaster relief bill

By Don Davis

Key Minnesota lawmakers looked over a proposed disaster-relief bill Thursday night, facing a Friday deadline if a special legislative session is to be called for Monday.

The bill, as proposed, would send $4.5 million to 18 counties affected by June 20-26 storms and floods and free about $219,000 for governments in Rock and Nobles counties still recovering from an April ice storm.

The ice storm funding was the most Gov. Mark Dayton could get, after last week promising that he would insist on giving the two counties $1 million.

“The governor has been a strong, strong advocate for providing that funding,” Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson said. “But in his conversation with legislative leaders and legislative membership, he just can’t find support for it. There seems to be strong bipartisan opposition. … He said he has tried to be as persuasive as he possibly can.”

Swenson said that $219,000 in grants available to Nobles and Rock counties and the city of Worthington are in the bill in part because of Dayton’s efforts.

The special disaster-relief session was not officially set as of early Thursday evening.

Friday is the deadline Dayton gave four legislative leaders to agree to specific details in a disaster-relief bill. If they agree today, Dayton said, he will sign an order calling lawmakers into special session on Monday.

“At this point, it hasn’t been agreed to by all five leaders,” Swenson said late Thursday afternoon.

No public opposition had surfaced to the two parts of the bill:

– $4.5 million to help 18 counties recover from June 20-26 floods.

– Giving Rock and Nobles counties $219,00 in grants, an amount the southwest Minnesota communities have not been able to collect after legislators approved providing them $250,000 earlier this year.

Swenson said that legislative leaders are reviewing bill language, but he did not know if an in-person meeting is needed before Dayton calls a special session. No meetings are scheduled among the governor and legislative leaders.

A week ago, Dayton said that he would insist that $1 million be appropriated to Nobles and Rock counties for ice storm recovery. But minutes later Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he would not allow that money to be sent to southwestern Minnesota because other disaster-relief efforts, such as one in his northeastern Minnesota area a year ago, did not get that kind of aid.

If the special session is called, House and Senate committees will meet after the session begins at 10 a.m. Monday, followed by the full chambers debating the issue. It is to last no longer than until 7 a.m. Tuesday and no other issues will be allowed to come up.

The $4.5 million is for 18 counties, going along with more than $13 million of federal money already promised. State money would come from funds not spent last year after northern Minnesota floods and wind storms.

The counties to get part of the $4.5 million are Benton, Big Stone, Douglas, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Grant, Hennepin, Houston, McLeod, Morrison, Pope, Sibley, Stearns, Stevens, Swift, Traverse and Wilkin counties.

The April ice storm caused an estimated $26 million damage in five southwestern Minnesota counties. The Legislature in May approved $1.5 million in aid to match federal recovery funds, with another $250,000 for other aid.

Local governments report having difficulty getting most of the $250,000, prompting the new plan to issue the remaining money as grants.

Much of the April damage was to private utilities, which under current law cannot receive state help.

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