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Flood session prep: Ready, set, fight

Charley Shaw//August 17, 2012

Flood session prep: Ready, set, fight

Charley Shaw//August 17, 2012

House Ways and Means Chair Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, says she’s still waiting to receive updated information regarding parts of the bill. Despite the questions, however, she says an August 24 session is still a possibility. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Disagreement over relief bill could delay special session

In the past week state lawmakers have inched toward a special session to deal with flood damage in northeastern Minnesota, but the movement has been marked by repeated Republican objections to the size and specific details of the $190 million relief bill proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration.

Dayton on Wednesday vented his frustration over the frosty reception that his administration’s legislation to address the July floods in and around Duluth has received from Republicans who control the House and Senate. On Thursday, a joint House and Senate working group that’s vetting the bill lumbered through its details in a meeting that saw numerous members express concern over whether the damage estimates are solid.

Dayton has said he’s willing to make adjustments in advance of the hoped-for August 24 special session, but he takes a dim view of the way the GOP has handled the matter. He criticized Republicans for claiming to be caught unawares by the size of his proposal when it was unveiled Aug. 7.
Dayton told reporters he’s disappointed that a bipartisan working group of stakeholders established in July drew no participation from Republican legislators.

“I’m disappointed that words like ‘sticker shock’ have been bandied about by people who had an open invitation for almost a month to acquaint themselves with the facts,” Dayton said.
Dayton was scheduled to meet with all four legislative leaders on Friday to discuss the agenda for a special session.

MIF request a sticking point

Among the issues Dayton must work out with legislative leaders is $20 million in proposed funding for the Minnesota Investment Fund (MIF). Dayton’s state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) has requested the funding owing in part to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) denial of the state’s request for federal assistance to individuals and businesses affected by the floods. (The disaster declaration signed by President Barack Obama ensures that FEMA will pick up 75 percent of the tab to fix public infrastructure.)

Lawmakers are debating how narrowly MIF eligibility should be defined. Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said he’s inclined to restrict the money to people whose premises sustained water damage.

“I think there are some open questions that we have,” Senjem said. “Is the MIF funding going to be used for dedicated flood damage, or can it be used more widely within the sphere of the disaster declaration area? I think that’s a little problematic.”

Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, whose community was hit by the heavy rains, made the case to keep the purpose of the MIF funding broad. During Thursday’s working group hearing at the state Capitol, she noted the MIF is “an answer for the denials that FEMA has made for individual businesses and individual people.”

“I think we should keep this broad,” Murphy said. “I think we should keep this unfiltered. And I think we should keep this hope for those small businesses and other people who maybe didn’t have the business ruined but their business is cut down … So let’s not mess around too much.”

Spend now or wait?

Some GOP lawmakers have hinted that the special session bill should be smaller than $190 million and a supplemental bill should be considered in the 2013 legislative session. They note that the money can’t all be spent before next spring. They also point out that the specific needs underlying the Dayton bill’s cost estimates will take more time to ascertain.

House Ways and Means Chair Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, noted that the state Department of Natural Resources is asking for $8 million to repair the Willard Munger State Trail. Holberg said she’s learned that the project won’t be bid until next year, and the trail needs $200,000 to $300,000 worth of work in the meantime to prepare for snowmobile season.

“Do you give them $8 million now because you think that might be the right amount?” Holberg said. “Or do you give them $500,000, half for getting it ready for snowmobiling and half for preliminary engineering, and then get a real price and give them that?”

But Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook said leaving unfinished business for the 2013 session is “risky.” He noted that the disaster relief could become a casualty of the larger budget negotiations for the 2014-2015 biennium.

“The next Legislature that gets elected is going to be managing an additional $1.1 billion deficit in the current forecast,” Bakk said. “All the indications are that it’s not going to get better with the November [economic forecast] numbers. I think it’s going to be very difficult for the next Legislature to come in here, and probably a third of them are going to be new, and immediately pass a supplemental appropriations bill spending money when at the same time the Legislature is trying to put together a new budget that has a $1.1 billion deficiency.”

House Taxes Chair Greg Davids, R-Preston, said he shares Bakk’s concern about timing. But lawmakers need to tighten provisions like the MIF provision by next Friday in order to wrap up the issue for good.

“Who knows who’s going to be back [after the general election in November] and who isn’t going to be back?” Davids said. “I think we have to nail it down to: What do we have to do to help the people of northeastern Minnesota that have suffered? No more, no less. It seems we’re getting a little bit far afield.”

While Republicans are concerned that the MIF proposal is too vague, they’re also concerned that the transportation part of the bill is too specific. Holberg said the $82 million for the state Department of Transportation is directed to be spent in the disaster area without knowing whether the repair will cost that much.

“I would be more inclined to prioritize the disaster area, but allow some flexibility, so that if those numbers were actually lower, then they would be able to balance the needs across the state,” Holberg said. “In other words, you don’t want to be in a situation where you say all $80 million is going to go to this area and then if the bids come in at $65 million, then that $15 million might be better spent on a bridge in another district.”

Holberg said she’s still waiting to receive updated information from state agency officials regarding some parts of the bill. Despite the questions, however, she said the August 24 goal is still a possibility.

“I think it’s doable. I do,” Holberg said.

Despite the differences of opinion on the bill’s details, legislators risk looking ineffective in an election year if talks don’t yield an August 24 session. Dayton, during his Thursday press conference, bluntly referred to the downside of a delay on the disaster-relief bill.

“Anyone who wants to deny disaster relief to people in Minnesota who suffered a severe disaster will be held accountable in the court of public opinion more than anywhere else,” Dayton said.

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