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Floods likely to spawn special session

While state and local officials have not yet tallied the damage totals from this month’s historic and widespread flooding, lawmakers could be forced to take a break from their summer vacations to reconvene in special session and appropriate disaster relief funds.

Last session, the Legislature created a $3 million contingency account in the hope that a dedicated relief fund would alleviate the need for such special sessions.

If President Obama heeds Gov. Mark Dayton’s plea for a federal disaster declaration — and though there is no damage estimate as yet, Dayton has briefed Obama on the situation, and Obama has pledged federal aid — the new state disaster fund could be tapped to leverage as much as $9 million in assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).

But will that be enough?

“The scope of this disaster keeps getting bigger and bigger. We might need a special session,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, who authored the contingency fund bill as well as the 2008 legislation that maps out how the state responds to such natural disasters.

Pelowski said that he was briefed by officials in the Dayton administration and said the administration “still hasn’t ruled out the possibility that this could be handled without a special session.”

Pelowski originally sought $6 million for the contingency fund, which would have provided significantly more wiggle room. That figure was halved during final conference committee negotiations.

Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said appropriating the larger sum proved problematic, in part because last session was a supplemental budget year.

Moreover, Cohen added, lawmakers needed to trim spending as they wrestled with the unexpected impact to the general fund arising from the deal to pay for a new home for the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota. The Bell project was originally included in the bonding bill but was stripped out during negotiations in order to win Republican support for the package.

“Next year, the expectation would be to get the [contingency] fund at a more appropriate level,” said Cohen. He said the principal goal of this year’s legislation was to set up a basic structure.

The extent of the damage to public infrastructure from the current flooding is not known, mainly because many affected areas remain submerged. Washed-out roads and damage to bridge piers are the main concerns for the Department of Transportation, according to spokesman Kevin Gutknecht.

Gutknecht said he could not hazard a guess on the possible costs of repairs. “It’s probably going to take weeks. The water has to recede before we can do a good examination,” he said. If forecasts calling for additional heavy rains prove accurate, he noted, that could lengthen the timetable further.

Pelowski said it is also possible that a special session could be averted by tapping the contingency fund incrementally and then waiting for the regular session to appropriate additional monies.

“The totality of this is far from finalized. That’s our problem in calling a special session. You want to call it when you have a fairly good grip on the size of the disaster,” he said.

After the state’s last major disaster — severe storms, straight-line winds and flooding that caused an estimated $17 million in damages across 18 counties in June 2013 — more than two months passed before the Legislature convened in special session to allocate the state’s $4.5 million in matching funds.

Conducting such a comprehensive assessment this time could prove complicated because of the unusually widespread nature of the flooding, which has drenched communities from International Falls in the north to the Iowa state line, as well as many points in between. All told, Gov. Dayton has declared a state of emergency in 35 of the state’s 87 counties.

Given the sheer number of affected communities, it appears likely that the state would meet the threshold for a presidential disaster declaration. To qualify, FEMA must first conduct a preliminary assessment and determine that the state sustained at least $7.3 million in damage to public infrastructure.

Between 2006 and 2013, there have been 14 presidential disaster declarations in Minnesota — a sharp uptick from the 37 such declarations over the proceeding 48 years. All but one of the recent disasters involved flooding.

“Whether it’s climate change that’s driving this, I’m not sure. But disasters used to be few and far between, and now we’re seeing them on a much more repetitive basis,” said Pelowski.

According to federal data, the Midwest experienced a 45 percent rise in “very heavy precipitation events” between 1958 and 2011.  A report last year from the state’s Interagency Climate Adaptation Team said that trend will likely force substantial upgrades in public infrastructure, ranging from higher capacity storm-water sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants to more frequent monitoring and repair of bridge piers and roads.

While lawmakers may wish they had included more money in the contingency fund, local officials will likely be pleased by another proviso included in the same legislation.  Under the new law, the state will pick up the local share and pay 100 percent of the matching funds required by FEMA.

About Mike Mosedale

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