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State politics, local issues

State Rep. Rod Hamilton of Mountain Lake takes in House debate. (Don Davis/Forum News Service)

WORTHINGTON -- It took until the final hours of the 2013 legislative session, but disaster relief funds for southwest Minnesota were finally approved.

"It was a little frustrating. April 9 through 11 was when the storm happened. My goodness, May 20 is the first time that I feel like I can actually do something about it," District 22A Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, said late Monday night, minutes after the bill passed.

"The governor did come down and did his declaration of disaster, and the FEMA crews and everyone were able to contribute. I just wanted to be a good neighbor and help contribute, too. It was a relief to finally get that done. It took until three hours before the end of session to get it done."

Originally, $1.5 million was set to be allocated to Rock, Nobles, Jackson, Murray and Cottonwood counties. That was based off the $6 million estimate of public damage caused by the April ice storm. The total does not include utilities.

FEMA has pledged to pick up 75 percent of the costs associated with the storm, but that still leaves a void.

"Talking with different people around there, I had a long conversation with Craig Clark and Mayor (Alan) Oberloh and others outside the city of Worthington," District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said. "They are talking about how there are non-eligible expenses as far as FEMA dollars and the disaster relief money coming from the state and the feds."

After talking with officials, Hamilton offered an amendment for an additional $250,000.

"That passed as well," Hamilton said. "Rep. Schomacker carried the disaster relief bill, and I offered up an amendment to that bill to add another $250,000. We have a little more leeway on how those dollars will be spent."

According to Oberloh, those extra funds are crucial.

"What I told Rep. Hamilton was that if the state didn't come through with a match on that, our budget was not set up to handle the extra cost of doing the debris removal and stump grinding and cleanup," Oberloh said. "I've talked to several mayors and council members from the other towns, too -- they don't have it in their budgets, either."

The state statutes require only a 15 percent share, that has been increased to 25 percent traditionally.

"Those funds are coming out of the bottom line for the 2014-15 budget," Schomacker said. "That's why we had a little bit of a problem -- the Senate took the bill up first and sent it over, but they had the wrong year in there. They had to fix it.

"In the meantime, Hamilton was able to get an amendment he was negotiating with the governor for an extra $250,000 for other things that weren't included in the FEMA projections, like the stump removal and trunk removal and that sort of thing," Schomacker continued. "We were able to get that in there."

Hamilton had also offered an amendment to give cities affected by the disaster early payments for local government aid.

"Instead of getting two separate payments, everybody in the five counties would get it accelerated," he said. "So, they would get it all in one payment all up front. That's just to help offset the cost until the disaster money comes and to help with the cost."

The disaster funds were originally attached to an $800 million bonding bill. That bill came up five votes short of the three-fifths majority needed.

"I wasn't pleased at all about that. Everybody understood I wasn't pleased when I stood up and spoke," Hamilton said.

"What really set me off was during the opening comments, the chair of the capital investment committee said, 'We are bringing forth a bonding bill of $800 million,' he explained. "This isn't a bonding year, this is a budget year. Next year is what's considered a bonding year. Right in her opening comments, she said, 'If you are seeking disaster relief for your area, you have to support this bill because this is your one and only shot."'

It wasn't what Schomacker expected, either.

"If it was anything else, I'd say, 'Yeah, OK, you have to play this game.' But with disaster relief? Really?" Schomacker said.

In the end, the money went through.

"To his credit, Speaker (Paul) Thissen did say, 'No, we're not going to play political games around this,"' Hamilton said. "It's Minnesota, and this is what we do. Even though there were some political games and I called them on it, when it was all said and done, you had leaders of the state and at the federal level, all of us coming together bipartisanally to offer up assistance that the people needed in southwestern Minnesota."

In the Senate, District 22 Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, was also working to get the bill through.

"I know Rep. Hamilton talked to the governor's office and the governor sent word that he expected that bill to get done," Weber said. "On Monday, the majority leader came to me and said, 'Your bill is coming up and we amended the House slightly.'

"The House passed it with the appropriate language for the extra $250,000, and we brought it back to the Senate and we concurred with the House language."

Compared to other natural disasters, Schomacker said he understood a few trees and power lines weren't comparable.

"This was a lot of infrastructure with power lines and tree cleanup, but still, we try and treat people as good as we can here," he said. "Just because southwest Minnesota voted for people who didn't maintain the majority in the legislature doesn't mean that they should be treated any differently than anyone else. At least the residents shouldn't be -- what they do to me and Rod up here, I don't really care. As long as they treat the people down there good, then we'll be OK."

Bonding bill passes

While the larger bonding bill failed in the House, a smaller one went through following the disaster relief bill.

"We passed another bonding bill tonight, too," Schomacker said. "Right after the relief bill, another bonding bill came up that was about $176 million that did the Capitol and some flood mitigation and the public finance authority. That will be very helpful. I ended up voting for it, and most of us did."

The bill, though, is very limited and includes mostly money for Capitol repair. It does not include the money Worthington was seeking for the Bioscience Advancement Center.

"The bonding bill that was passed does not include any local projects," Weber said. "That is one of the victims of the bonding situation. We knew that could be a possibility because this is not a typical bonding year -- it's a budget year.

"Hopefully we will get our communities taken care of in the not-too-distant future."

According to Hamilton, that would be a project included next session.

"From talking to leadership, basically the agreement that was made between the two parties is that all the Republican projects that were in this bonding bill that was defeated will be in next year's bonding bill," he said. "It's delayed for a year, but there have been agreements that took place and we'll hold them to it."

Tax bill to affect all

All three legislators pointed to the tax bill as one piece that will affect southwest Minnesota.

"The tax bill overall -- the governor himself has said it's going to impact people all across the board and it will," Schomacker said. "It's not just the tax on the rich or anything like that. I think it's going to make people more likely to look at South Dakota and Iowa. The budget they passed makes it a little easier for them to justify that."

Weber said the bill goes beyond what was promised.

"There are some provisions in there that are going to be problematic," he said. "The tax bill has gone far beyond the early rallying cry for the majority that they were going to tax the top one or two percent. The tax increases go much further down the line than that between income taxes and the sales taxes."

Also in the tax bill is agricultural increases.

"In the tax bill, it passed where there is a tax on agricultural inputs, which we were told that would not happen," Hamilton said.

The examples he used was from what is called a "warehouse tax."

"For anhydrous ammonia for farmers, if you do not own the tanks and you're leasing them, you are now taxed on the storage of that anhydrous," Hamilton said.

He also explained the same is true with LP gas in storage. Maintenance on farm equipment will now be taxed, too.

"They will backpedal and say they will fix it next year, but they had a chance to pull it out and fix it this year and they didn't," Hamilton said.

Overall, the bill will raise about $3 billion in new revenue.

Nursing homes will see a slight increase.

"The nursing homes and long-term care facilities have been neglected," Hamilton said. "Here you are raising addition $3 billion dollars, and we were able to fight for a 5 percent increase for nursing homes. We were not able to get the 5 percent for the long-term care facilities; they only gave us a 1 percent. I think that's upsetting. It's a slap in the face for those who care for those in need."

Energy bill

Both Schomacker and Weber said the energy bill will also be affected in southwest Minnesota.

"I really think those are going to drive up prices that we have for energy costs," Schomacker said. "I know the co-ops were excluded from a lot of that, but it's still going to be driving up a lot of extra costs with some of the mandates they have there."

The bill has a solar mandate written into it.

"The energy bill with the 1.5 percent solar mandate is going to cost more," Weber said. "Fortunately, for many customers in my Senate district, the cooperatives and municipals are excluded from that."

With all the new taxes and increased spending, Schomacker said it's getting tougher for Minnesota to compete with surrounding states.

"You have North Dakota that's spending money on billboards that say,'North Dakota, open for business' in the Moorhead area," Schomacker said. "The governor of South Dakota was in the Mall of America last weekend with a booth up there talking to people about why they should move to South Dakota with the tax breaks and the quality of life. They see blood in the water, and they are going to go after it."

Daily Globe Community Content Coordinator Aaron Hagen may be reached at 376-7323.