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Special session: A failure to communicate

FALCON HEIGHTS -- Democrats who control state government showed disagreements and problems communicating while discussing a special legislative session this week at the Minnesota State Fair and the state Capitol.

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There was a sharp disagreement between Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk during interviews minutes apart when they were asked about sending another $1 million to southwestern Minnesota counties affected by an April ice storm. And Bakk had expected a joint House-Senate committee to draw up disaster-relief legislation, but the Wednesday night meeting of the group is the only one planned.

What a state emergency services official called straight-forward disaster aid is turning into a legislative struggle.

“There are a couple of challenges,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said about the Dayton wish to give $1 million Rock and Nobles counties for the April storm.

One of those “challenges” is a dispute between Dayton and Bakk.

“I’m really pushing hard,” Dayton said of the added $1 million, adding later that he “insists” on the money. “I’m very persuasive.”

Bakk said the extra $1 million goes beyond what was approved by the federal government and he would not go there. The state usually provides 25 percent of disaster recovery funds for local governments, with federal money handling the rest.

The Senate leader said that giving money outside the federal rules would set a precedent for future disasters.

He would, however, be willing to approve new legislation that makes it easier for southwestern Minnesota officials to access $250,000 that lawmakers approved in May. Few of those funds have been allocated.

Bakk also said he expected an informal legislative committee to write legislation to be considered during the Sept. 9 special disaster-relief session. However, after the committee met Wednesday night, its chairmen said they had no plan to call another meeting.

“The leadership will have to figure it out,” Bakk said, after being told no more meetings will be called.

Bakk, Thissen and Dayton likely will work out those details late next week, allowing Dayton to officially call the special session for the next Monday.

House and Senate committees will meet after the session begins at 10 a.m. Sept. 9 to approve disaster legislation, then the full chambers will debate the issue.

While many have assumed the Senate Finance Committee will take up the bill, Bakk said he plans to only send it to the Rules Committee, which he controls. That would leave Senate Finance Chairman Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, with less influence over the outcome.

In an interview, Dayton corrected his emergency management director, who Wednesday night said $4.5 million local governments need to recover from June storms and floods all will come from unspent money designated for last year’s northern Minnesota floods and wind storms. Dayton said it has not been decided if the funds will come from that pot, the state budget’s bottom line or a combination of both sources.

Bakk said there will be some mad Duluth officials if money comes from funds they are supposed to have available for the rare flood that hit that city. The Duluth area is still recovering.

The special session is being called primarily to help 18 counties recover from June 20-26 storms and floods. They are Benton, Big Stone, Douglas, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Grant, Hennepin, Houston, McLeod, Morrison, Pope, Sibley, Stearns, Stevens, Swift, Traverse and Wilkin counties.

Preliminary surveys show nearly $18 million in damage to public infrastructure, with the state planning to pay $4.5 million of local governments’ expenses.

The April ice storm caused an estimated $26 million damage in five southwestern Minnesota counties. The Legislature in April approved $1.75 million in aid. Much of the April damage was to private utilities, which under current law cannot receive state help.

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.