Farmington leaders offer to host special legislative session

Pitching Farmington

By Don Davis

Leaders of the southern Twin Cities suburb of Farmington Thursday offered to host a special legislative session to fund flood recovery.

“Minnesota has a proud tradition of coming together to provide relief for those in need following natural disasters, and Farmington would be a unique and well-suited location to host any upcoming special session given the current state of the Capitol,” state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said.

The invitation came as much of the Capitol building is closed for a $273 million renovation. However, state officials say the House and Senate chambers and some meeting rooms will be available if Gov. Mark Dayton needs to call a special session.

While the governor’s office and House speaker did not reject the Farmington proposal, neither did they give it much hope.

“It is an intriguing idea,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “However, there are questions in terms of costs and feasibility.”

Dayton press secretary Matt Swenson said a special session, which is not a certainty, would need agreement among all four legislative leaders and the governor.

“While Rep. Garafolo’s idea is an interesting one, the additional costs incurred by holding a special session outside the Capitol would need to be considered…” Swenson said. “Gov. Dayton’s primary concern is ensuring Minnesotans affected by this summer’s flooding get the help they need as quickly as possible.”

Floods that affected more than half of Minnesota’s counties likely will bring a presidential disaster declaration, but even though the federal government would pay for most flood recovery costs, the state would be on the hook for 25 percent. That probably means the Legislature will need to convene to appropriate the money.

Most disaster recovery funding sessions last less than a day and are routine.

Farmington residents said they can offer lawmakers a home away from Capitol construction and it would give them a chance to toot their own horn.

“We are small town Minnesota nice, but with big city dreams,” Farmington High School student Natalie Pellin said.

School officials proposed using iPad technology they already have in their 5-year-old school to record votes.

“Farmington High School has the space and technology to host a legislative special session, and this is a chance for legislators to see firsthand the technology our students are using to help improve our education outcomes in the classroom,” Chairwoman Tera Lee of the Farmington School Board said.

Farmington Mayor Todd Larson said that holding the session in his community would showcase his entire community.

Garofalo said he is concerned with technological issues during a special session in the Capitol because some recording systems have been removed. He also expressed concerns about the public’s safety in a construction zone.

However, even though the Capitol will remain mostly closed next year, he said that he does not have the same concerns during next year’s regular session that begins in January and could last into May.

Garofalo admitted that the Farmington suggestion could set off a competition among cities around Minnesota to host the session. Soon after Farmington leaders talked to reporters, Rep. Joe Radinovich, D-Crosby, tweeted that his area would be a good location.

“This is purely to showcase the accomplishments of Farmington,” Garofalo said.

Ex-lawmaker Otremba dies

Otremba

By Al Edenloff

Mary Ellen Otremba, a popular and soft-spoken state legislator who represented areas of central and west-central Minnesota for 13 years, died Thursday. She was 63.

Otremba, a Democrat, was known for working across party lines for greater Minnesota issues, as evidenced by Republicans praising her service in the hours after her death.

In 2010, Otremba announced that she wouldn’t seek an eighth term. At that time, she issued a statement saying it had been “an incredible privilege” to serve the citizens of District 11B in the Minnesota House.

“There is no greater honor in a democracy than to be selected by one’s fellow citizens to represent them in the halls of government,” Otremba said in her statement. “I will always be grateful for the years I’ve had to serve in our beautiful Capitol, working to enhance the quality of life for all Minnesotans.”

She said her father “brought me to my first precinct caucus. Since that day, I’ve never stopped working to shine a light on the wonderful things than make greater Minnesota’s quality of life so special.”

After Otremba retired, Republican Mary Franson of Alexandria defeated the DFL-endorsed candidate in Otremba’s district, Amy Hunter, in the 2010 election.

“My hearts mourns for Mary Ellen and the family she leaves behind,” Franson said. “Mary Ellen was a dedicated public servant who represented the heart and soul of our community well.”

Another Republican also praised the Democrat.

“Rep. Otremba was widely respected in the Legislature and known for her passion for Todd County residents,” said Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls. “Party politics didn’t play into her thinking; instead, her integrity and strong desire to represent Todd County drove her legislation.”

Otremba was first elected in a November 1997 special election after the death of her husband, Rep. Ken Otremba, two months earlier.

She chaired the House Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Committee, and was a member of the Ways and Means Committee. She also served on a variety of committees dealing with agriculture, rural development, veterans affairs and health and human services.

She was an assistant House minority leader from 2001 to 2004.

Otremba graduated from Long Prairie High School and attended the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, where she received a degree in home and community service. She later attended St. Cloud State University, receiving a master’s degree in child and family studies. She worked as a nutritionist for the Todd County Department of Public Health from 1984 to 1989, as a teacher in the Freshwater Educational District from 1986 to 1989 and as a teacher at Eagle Valley High School in Clarissa from 1989 to 1997. She also taught family and consumer science at Swanville High School and was a substitute teacher there.

Minnesota farmland taxes expected to rise

By Don Davis

Many Minnesota property owners could see some tax relief this year, but farmers can expect higher taxes for at least the next two years.

“What I am hearing is it is making it much more difficult to do business as a farmer,” Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said of agriculture property tax increases.

Still, he said, the Democratic-controlled Legislature and governor’s office have slowed increases that have occurred for more than a decade.

A new, nonpartisan Minnesota House report shows that property taxes as a whole should fall $49 million this year, a 0.6 percent drop, although the cost for each property owner will be different. The tax cut may not be seen on property tax bills because the House figures in tax refunds that Democrats increased.

In 2015, property taxes should go up $238 million, a 2.8 percent increase, the House report predicted.

In both years, farmland property taxes are expected to rise: 8.1 percent this year and 4.7 percent next year.

Researchers emphasize that they are working off their best guess because they cannot predict factors such as how much local governments may raise property taxes and how much property may be worth.

The two major parties waged a news release battle soon after the property tax figures were released. Democrats emphasized this year’s predicted drop in most types of property taxes, while Republicans focused on the 2015 increases.

“We knew farmers and rural landowners were going to be hit hard with property tax increases, but now it appears that homeowners in all tax brackets can expect to pay more despite promises the Democrats made over the past two years,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska. “Make no mistake, hardworking Minnesotans from all corners of the state are going to feel the impacts of this property tax increase.”

A news release from Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party lawmakers showed a different side, explaining that when Republicans were in charge, property taxes soared $370 million in 2012.

“The DFL-led Legislature made property tax relief a priority in our budget and, in particular, made direct property tax relief a priority,” the DFL reported, adding that Democrats approved $178 million in property tax relief in the past two years and more than 300,000 homeowners should receive larger property tax refunds.

Marquart, long an outspoken supporter of lowering farm taxes, said that at least agriculture taxes are not rising as fast as they would have under the policies in effect when Democrats took over in early 2013.

The rising taxes still bother him: “I don’t like that, but I think we are getting ag property taxes under control.”

Marquart said the main reason farm property taxes are going up is that farmland value is rising. While home values recently have gone up 6.8 percent, ag land is up 13.3 percent, he said. That shifts property taxes from homes to farmland.

Farmers complain that while land prices are rising, they do not benefit unless they sell their farms.

Marquart said farmers in his western Minnesota district report taxes that not long ago were $14 to $15 an acre now are $30 to $40. “It really has impacted the cost of production.”

Marquart said he does not have the answer to how to fix ag taxes, but said the Legislature and governor must tackle the issue next year.

“We still have a lot of work to do, absolutely,” Marquart said. “But we are moving in the right direction.”

Legislature clarifies farmer market requirements

By Charley Shaw, Session Daily

Minnesota’s food safety laws would be specifically tailored to address farmers markets under a bill headed to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk.

Sponsored by Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Lindstrom, and Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, was passed 129-0 by the House late Wednesday. Senators passed it 55-0 Thursday.

“There are over 100 (farmers markets) in our state, probably every county in the state,” Barrett said. “They’re a good community resource to us.”

Barrett introduced the bill after constituents who run the Chisago City Farmers Market sought clarity to state laws that govern how food is handled at their market.

The bill would create a new section devoted to farmers markets in Minnesota law that deals with licensing food handlers. It would specify how food samples and cooking demonstrations at farmers markets should be regulated.

Farmers would be required to provide regulatory agencies with information upon request such as the source of the food and the equipment used to prepare it.

The bill was amended in the House to address food safety regulations for chili cook-offs. The chili amendment was crafted in response to cook-off contestants who were denied participation because they couldn’t fulfill food preparation rules.

In an amendment successfully offered by Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, organizations would be exempt if they follow rules including being approved by the local municipality and developing food safety rules.

Shaw writes for the nonpartisan Session Daily (www.house.leg.state.mn.us/sessiondaily) in the Minnesota House Public Information Office.

Politicians remember former Sen. Win Borden’s good, bad times

Borden in 2008

By Mike O’Rourke, Brainerd Dispatch

Win Borden, a former state senator whose career included both great success and serious setbacks, has died at age 70.

In recent years he lived, farmed and wrote from the 1929 wood-heated farmhouse he was raised in near Merrifield, north of Brainerd.

A fellow freshman senator with Borden was Roger Moe of Erskine, who served as DFL Senate majority leader for more than 20 years. “He was well-prepared and a very effective legislator,” Moe said of Borden. “Within relatively short order he became an assistant majority leader under (then-Senate Majority Leader) Nick Coleman.”

Borden’s first win at the polls was in 1970, when he upset 26-year-old Sen. Gordon Rosenmeier of Little Falls.

After winning re-election in 1972 and 1976, Borden surprised many by resigning to accept a leadership role with the Minnesota Association of Commerce and Industry, a forerunner of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

Former lawmaker Don Samuelson of Brainerd said he thought Borden was disappointed when he failed to win the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party endorsement for the U.S. House when Rep. Bob Bergland, D-Minn., was appointed secretary of agriculture in the mid-1970s.

While serving the chamber, Borden hosted a daily radio program heard on more than 80 Minnesota stations.

Trouble came to Borden’s life in 2004, when he was sentenced and later served one year at a minimum security federal prison in Yankton, S.D., for failing to file federal income tax returns.

In an editor’s note in Borden’s book, “Ruminations — Memories and Tales of a Furrowed Mind,” Pete Holste wrote that Borden’s problems with the Internal Revenue Service were preceded by mental health problems and a pattern of alcohol abuse.

“Obviously, there were some difficulties in his life,” Moe said. “I think, though, he tried to come to grips with that. I enjoyed his books that he wrote later in life. He was a bright guy. Whatever he took on, he took on with real zest.”

In a 2008 interview with the Brainerd Dispatch, Borden reflected on a career in which he met such luminaries as Hubert H. Humphrey and Charles Lindbergh. He also summed up thoughts about his own political future.

“Thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said. “Never want to repeat it.”

‘People have a right to expect lower property taxes’

By Don Davis

The future of state aid that many local Minnesota governments depend on may be at stake in the next few weeks as property taxes appeared to be headed up.

By mid-December, city, county and other local officials decide how much property tax they will collect. Those decisions come on the heels of the Democratic Legislature and governor sending them large bundles of new money in the name of property tax relief.

If taxes go up, local governments may see less state aid in the future. That could lead to service cuts or property tax increases, much like Minnesotans have experienced for a decade.

“People have a right to expect lower property taxes,” state Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said.

But many Minnesotans probably will not see lower bills.

A state Revenue Department report earlier this month indicated that property tax levies statewide could rise nearly 2 percent statewide. Cities expect to raise tax levies 2.1 percent, counties 1.5 percent, townships 2.1 percent, schools 2.6 percent and other taxing districts 2.3 percent.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and others are concerned that the preliminary numbers show 63 percent of cities and 77 percent of counties plan higher property tax levies.

Democrats did not think that would happen. They thought that millions of dollars in additional state aid they sent to local governments would result in property tax cuts.

“There will be a number of legislators who seize on any increase as evidence that local governments are (big) spenders and they will take every dollar and spend it and get more and more and they will take every dollar they can get,” Dayton said. “So they are going to undermine the case we have been making.”

With Dayton saying that increases will “seriously undermine our case,” Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans plans to talk to local government leaders who propose raising tax levies in the hope that they will trim their tax levies.

The latest Revenue Department numbers come from preliminary property tax levy decisions local officials have made. Each governing body needs to make a levy final decision by mid-December. State law does not permit preliminary levies to go up, only stay the same or shrink.

Statewide, preliminary levies always are higher than the final ones. They usually fall a percentage point or less, which if it happens this year tax means levies would rise a bit.

The preliminary levies are a mixed bag, Dayton said. “We reduced property tax increases, but our goal was to reduce property taxes.”

Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, said that even if levies increase, “the average property taxpayer probably will not see an increase.”

A higher levy does not always mean higher homeowner taxes. For instance, if business property value increases more than home value in a community, businesses would pay a higher percentage of taxes and home property taxes could fall. The situation is different in each community.

Frans and Dayton said that, despite their concerns, they understand the need for higher taxes.

Frans said that in Ada, for instance, he learned that when Local Government Aid was falling in the past 10 years, the city decided to buy a new police car every six years instead of every five years. With higher LGA coming, city officials plan to return to the old purchase schedule to try to prevent equipment problems.

Even if property taxes rise, Gary Carlson of the League of Minnesota Cities and those representing other forms of local government say that new money is needed after 10 years during which state aid often fell, or at least did not keep up with inflation.

The levies announced this month, at less than a 2 percent increase, easily could have been 6 percent or 7 percent hikes without the additional state aid, Carlson said.

Salary freezes, hiring caps and other cuts have hampered local governments, Carlson said. “At some point, and maybe it already has started, there is some pressure to fill some of those jobs, to undertake some of those projects, to kind of get back to the traditional flow of services.”

Local governments have held down property taxes for years, said Beau Berentson of the Association of Minnesota Counties. “We are still dealing with a decade of underinvestment, under funding.”

Skoe said his area is a good example of county-to-county differences.

Beltrami County’s preliminary 2014 levy is the same as the current one. But next door in Clearwater County, officials decided to sell a hospital and have related debt that needs to be paid, leading to a preliminary 14 percent levy increase.

One factor influencing higher taxes is that unexpected local aid cuts over the years have made local officials leery about trusting state government to come through with money that was promised.

“I have had that specific conversation on many occasions,” Frans said.

Given that lack of trust, some local budgets are built without counting on full state aid, possibly triggering larger-than-needed levy increases.

With increases looming, some say, there could be a fight to keep Local Government Aid and County Program Aid as is.

“I do think it makes it harder for local governments to make the argument that LGA is about property tax relief,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

Local Government Aid was created in 1971 to give cities without much property wealth (and, thus, a harder time collecting property taxes) the ability to provide fundamental services such as police and fire protection. It has become critical for many cities, such as Minneapolis, St. Paul and Greater Minnesota communities.

A formula designed to determine financial need means most Twin Cities suburbs receive little, if any, LGA. Suburbs generally have more property wealth than communities that receive LGA, so they can collect more property taxes.

“A lot of suburban legislators are going to have doubt,” Marquart said. “’Is that the right investment to make?’ I’m going to be honest, that is a fair question.”

If the final levies next month show increases, Marquart said, the news will “send a very clear message and determine the future of Local Government Aid.”

“The state of Minnesota is watching,” Marquart warned.

Democrats “came through” for local governments, said Larry Jacobs from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, “and the taxes still go up. I think this was an overreach on the part of local governments. I think they might have lost an ally in the Capitol.”

Most importantly for local governments, Jacobs added, “this could be an end to what had been a pretty nice gravy train.”

 

—-

 

New money the governor and Legislature approved sending to local Minnesota governments next year:

– $140 million in homestead credit refunds and renters’ credits, which goes directly to Minnesotans

– $129 million in sales tax exemptions for cities and counties (a figure cities and counties say actually will be half that size)

– $80 million increase in Local Government Aid, raising the total to $507 million in 2014

– $40 million increase County Program Aid, raising the total to $105 million next year

– $10 million in township aid, a new program

—-

Property taxes, mostly levied by local governments, increased from $4.4 billion in 2002 to $8.3 billion this year.

Issues Sjodin case raised need answers a decade later

Magnuson

By Don Davis

Dru Sjodin’s kidnapping from a Grand Forks, N.D., shopping mall 10 years ago this week began a discussion about what Minnesota should do with sex offenders, a discussion nearing a time for decisions.

The question is whether those decisions will be made by state officials or by a federal judge who in following the federal Constitution may not do what Minnesotans would prefer.

At issue is a Minnesota law, similar to one in a few other states, that allows a state judge to commit a sex offender who has served his prison sentence to a jail-like treatment center until he graduates from the program.

“Can you box someone up for a crime they haven’t committed,” former Minnesota Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said is the question a federal judge is considering.

At least part of the answer is available. The federal judge expects a task force Magnuson heads to draw up proposals for how Minnesota can release sex offenders who are treated after prison in “civil commitment.” Then, the Legislature must enact legislation.

Magnuson, whose task force is due to release its ideas in a couple of weeks, said the lawsuit by sex offenders that is in front of the judge could result in mass releases, although Magnuson said that he cannot read the judge’s mind.

The former chief justice’s comments came Monday as a state Senate committee caught up on latest developments.

The committee did not note Friday’s upcoming anniversary of Sjodin’s kidnapping, but did acknowledge that her case was the beginning of a surge of sex offender civil commitments, the time sex offenders spend in a jail-like facility after serving their prison terms.

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. of Crookston, Minn., was convicted in federal court of Sjodin’s kidnapping and death in 2003. Earlier that year, he had released from the Minnesota prison system after serving a sentence on a sex offense.

The case raised a public outcry, which politicians met over the years by increasing prison terms for sex offenders. Gov. Tim Pawlenty also led a movement to commit more sex offenders to treatment after they finished their prison terms.

That effort resulted in the state Corrections Department suggesting in December 2003 that 235 imprisoned sex offenders be committed for treatment. In the entire rest of the year, just 14 offenders had been recommended, and since a commitment law began in 1995, the most recommended for commitment in any one year was 58.

Since 2003, the number of commitment referrals has varied from 88 to 170 a year.

The number of commitments has raised the number of sex offenders undergoing state treatment from 181 in 2002 to nearly 700 today.

One man was released from treatment, but quickly returned. One other man was let out and Robin Benson of the Human Services Department said that he is doing well.

It is that lack of graduates that apparently bothers federal Judge Donovan Frank, who has strongly signaled that the state needs to take action soon. In other federal cases, judges have taken over state programs that they determined were unconstitutional.

“Treatment is the linchpin,” Magnuson said.

Without treatment and the ability for sex offenders to be let out of the state program, which is behind razor wire fences, state officials’ fear is that Frank will take over the treatment program after finding that civil commitment is the same as a life sentence.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said that dealing with the 700 sex offenders now in treatment is only one part of the issue legislators face.

Also on next year’s agenda, she said, should be how to handle sex offenders now in prison. Many of the most serious ones normally would be committed to the treatment program, but that might not be possible if Frank gets involved.

The third issue lawmakers must tackle, but Sheran said there probably will not be time to do it next year, is how to deal with future offenders. Among thoughts on that is to provide more treatment while sex offenders are in prison, reducing or eliminating the need for them to be committed after their prison terms end.

Sheran and the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault said lawmakers also need to look into ways to prevent sex abuse and to intervene earlier when it does occur. They said that would save victims and money.

Chairman Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, urged his colleagues to encourage House members to join senators in passing a bill giving sex offenders a chance to graduate from treatment. The Senate earlier this year approved such a measure, but the House did not take it up.

“We don’t have the luxury of time,” Latz said.

—-

Officials say patients in the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program in Moose Lake are about evenly divided between those who came from the Twin Cities and those from the rest of the state.

All but eight of Minnesota’s 87 counties have sex offenders in the program. Those eight counties are Houston, Renville, Lac qui Parle, Big Stone, Stevens, Grant, Red Lake and Cook.

Knoblach sues over Senate building

Knoblach

By Don Davis

A former Minnesota House member who headed the public works committee is taking the state to court seeking to prevent construction of a new Senate office building.

Former Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, announced today that he is filing the suit because the measure lawmakers passed in May funding the building violated a constitutional provision requiring each bill to contain only one subject.

The $90 million for the office building and Capitol-area parking facilities was contained in a tax bill that included more than $2 billion in tax increases. Knoblach said there is no better example of a single-subject violation than combining construction spending and tax revenues.

“It was buried deep in the tax bill and passed on the chaotic last day of session,” Knoblach said.

Knoblach’s attorney, Erick Kaardal of Minneapolis, pointed to a couple of recent court decisions that overturned provisions judges thought violated the single-subject requirement. However, court insiders say the trend of Minnesota judges has been to let the Legislature define the single-subject issue.

Kaardal said he thinks the case could be decided in district court within half a year, which Knoblach said would allow legislators to pass a new tax bill that does not violate the state Constitution in their session next year.

While Knoblach said he is not asking the courts to overturn other parts of the tax bill, he said judges could do that. If that happens, tax increases and a major Mayo Medical Center project in Rochester could be stopped.

The office building still is in the planning stage, and is set to be completed in 2015. It would house some Senate offices, while others would remain in the Capitol building. Now, the majority party (currently Democrats) has Capitol offices, while the minority party is housed in the State Office Building across the street.

The new building is to be built across University Avenue to the north of the Capitol, closer than the State Office Building.

It is to include an inside parking ramp and meeting rooms, as well as offices.

Timing for building the facility is tied to a $270 million Capitol renovation project. Planners hope the building can be occupied in 2015, so senators and staffers can move out of the Capitol, making way for work on their areas.

Many lawmakers were surprised to learn about the Senate building plans, which surfaced near the end of the legislative session in May. The building had received little discussion.

Senate, ex-staffer settle suit

By Don Davis

A longtime Republican activist agreed Thursday to drop a lawsuit claiming gender discrimination against the Minnesota Senate.

Former Senate GOP spokesman Michael Brodkorb will get $30,000 in severance pay in the deal, which already cost state taxpayers more than $300,000 in legal fees. He was fired after senators discovered he and then-Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, were having an affair.

Brodkorb said he was happy to end the suit because he “got my life back,” and Senate leaders said they were pleased to end the messy case.

“This agreement permanently dismisses Mr. Brodkorb’s claims in their entirety while providing the limited severance pay that was offered to him before he commenced litigation against the Senate,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.

Brodkorb sued the Senate because, he said, female employees had not lost their jobs when they had affairs with male senators.

Bakk and Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said the agreement with Brodkorb includes provisions that:

– Brodkorb acknowledges the sex discrimination lawsuit would not survive in court.

– No more claims against the state will be entered by Brodkorb.

– The Senate will not pay Brodkorb legal fees.

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee must approve the agreement.

“We have said all along that the Senate acted appropriately in this matter,” Hann said.

Brodkorb’s attorneys have been interviewing senators and others believed to have been involved in past affairs. Brodkorb said he has a long list of such affairs.

Brodkorb ran a partisan Republican blog before he was hired as Senate Republican spokesman. When Republicans took control of the Senate in 2011, he became one of Koch’s top aides.

In the fall of 2011, word began to spread among Senate employees about the affair. In December of that year, some senators confronted Koch about the issue. Within a couple of days she resigned her leadership position and some Republican senators told reporters about the affair, without naming Brodkorb.

It did not take long for news stories to mention Brodkorb, and he followed with his lawsuit.

Brodkorb had sought more than $500,000.

Legislature OKs disaster aid

Westrom

By Don Davis

The Minnesota Legislature overwhelmingly approved disaster-relief funds today for 20 counties today during one of the shortest special sessions in recent years.

The Senate passed the bill 59-0, with eight absentees, followed by the House 127-1 as six members were gone. It took four hours for the formalities, committee meetings, floor debate and the vote.

Today’s action sends $4.5 million to 18 counties affected by June storms and floods and frees up $219,000 for Rock and Nobles counties and the city of Worthington to use to recover from an April ice storm.

Few spoke against anything in the disaster-relief bill, but Republicans used the opportunity to complain that the brief session did not take the opportunity to overturn the “man-made disaster” of tax increases the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton approved earlier this year.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said that the tax increases, including one on farm equipment repair, are driving business to nearby states. He talked about billboards declaring the Wisconsin, South Dakota and North Dakota are “open for business.”

“Let’s make these signs go away,” he said.

Eight counties in the district of Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, will receive disaster-relief money, and he said he was grateful. “This was not a major disaster … but even small disasters in communities are important where they happen.”

However, he joined other Republicans in attacking tax increases.

Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, said that his southwestern Minnesota communities sought $1 million more for ice storm recovery, but he did not fight for the money since legislative leaders rejected the idea.

“I know what the outcome is going to be,” he said before the vote.

The June 20-26 storms force power outages on 600,000 Minnesota homes and businesses, the largest loss of electricity in state history. Mudslides closed roads.

“Thousands of mature trees were uprooted,” said Deputy Commissioner Joe Kelly of Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Counties to get money for recover from the June disaster are  Benton, Big Stone, Douglas, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Grant, Hennepin, Houston, McLeod, Morrison, Pope, Sibley, Stearns, Stevens, Swift, Traverse and Wilkin. The funds are to go to local governments, with no aid available to home and business owners.

Democrats and Republicans agreed that changes are needed in the disaster-relief procedure used by the state.

“I don’t expect that this special session is the end of the conversation,” Senate Finance Chairman Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said.

Cohen and other leaders said they expect the process to change next year.

10 a.m. Monday special session set

By Don Davis

Minnesota lawmakers return to St. Paul Monday to appropriate $4.5 million to help local governments in recover from June storms and floods.

Gov. Mark Dayton signed the proclamation scheduling the special legislative session Friday afternoon after four legislative leaders signed off on language in a two-page bill they will consider.

The 10 a.m. session, expected to be preceded by a Senate committee hearing, must wrap up by 7 a.m. Tuesday under a deal Dayton and legislative leaders earlier signed. The only other action lawmakers are allowed to take will be to free up $219,000 in aid for communities affected by an April ice storm.

“When a disaster strikes, Minnesotans expect us to respond,” said Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, who last year worked for flood-relief money for his northeastern Minnesota area.

The $4.5 million is a match for federal payments that will pay for most of the $18 million in damages local governments sustained during the June 20-26 storms and floods.

The funds are destined only for local governments; home and business owners are not eligible. The state money comes from unused funds appropriated to help communities affected by floods and wind storms last year, with no new tax money needed.

The June storms affected parts of central, western and southern Minnesota.

The only controversy as the special session was being considered came when Dayton insisted on adding $1 million for Rock and Nobles counties, two of five southwestern Minnesota counties hit by an April ice storm that caused $26 million in damage. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he could not agree to Dayton’s plan.

The only action the Legislature is to take about the ice storm is making it easier for the two counties and city of Worthington to get money lawmakers appropriated in May. Each of the counties is to get $60,000 and Worthington is slated to receive $99,000.

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

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.