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Lawmakers rapidly OK disaster aid

ST. PAUL — Minnesota legislators breezed through disaster-relief approval Monday, about as fast as winds that uprooted thousands of trees in June, but spent far more time discussing what Republicans called a “man-made disaster” of tax increases.

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Local governments in 18 counties from west-central to southeast Minnesota will split $4.5 million lawmakers approved to help recover from a June 20-26 storm and flood disaster. Federal funds are to cover the remaining damage to public property.

Total damage was $18 million.

Also, Nobles and Rock counties and the city of Worthington were given easier access to $219,000 already approved for April ice storm recovery.

Deputy Director Joe Kelly of Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management told legislative committees that June storms produced winds topping 75 miles an hour, forced mudslides and closed roads. With 600,000 homes and businesses without electricity, it was the state’s largest-ever power outage.

“Thousands of mature trees were uprooted,” Kelly said.

In some communities, rain fell at a pace that happens just once every 500 years, he added.

The Senate passed the bill 59-0, with eight absentees. The House voted 127-1 as six members were gone. It took four hours for the formalities, committee meetings, floor debate and the vote, one of the quickest special sessions in recent years.

Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill shortly after 4 p.m.

Funding for disaster relief comes from unspent money originally provided for last year’s northern Minnesota flooding and windstorms.

Eight counties represented by 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.”

Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake, with seven counties in the disaster area, joined Republicans in complaining that a farm implement repair sales tax was not overturned Monday.

“After such a tough drought last year, and such drastic weather this year, our farmers need some relief,” McNamar said. “It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to get past partisan politics and get this bill worked into our bipartisan agreement.”

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said that and other tax increases 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.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, had proposed overturning the farm tax in the special session, and Dayton quickly jumped on board. But legislative leaders and Dayton never came to an agreement on the issue.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he could not promise any of the new taxes would be overturned next year. He said there will be a couple of budget reports before lawmakers return Feb. 25, critical information needed before deciding the future of any taxes.

Dayton wanted lawmakers to approve $1 million more in aid for communities in Rock and Nobles counties, with Worthington alone reporting nearly that much in ice storm damages not covered by other funds.

But that never happened. Instead, lawmakers approved allowing $219,000 already appropriated for communities affected by the storm to be easier for Nobles and Rock counties and Worthington to access.

“There are some unmet needs,” Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said, with thousands of trees on public property destroyed.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.