Agreement reached on special session

Gov. Pawlenty announces special session
Gov. Tim Pawlenty announces a special session to allocate flood relief. At right is House Minority Leader Marty Seifer, R-Marshall.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Gov. Pawlenty and legislative leaders say the flood relief package will cost between $150 and $160 million. The funding will provide forgivable loans and grants to homeowners and business who commit to rebuild in the area. The funding will also be used to repair damaged roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Pawlenty, who has been criticized for not calling a lawmakers back to the Capitol sooner, said the special session will provide a faster response than the state delivered for major flooding in the Red River Valley and Roseau.

It's, I think, the fastest disaster recovery special session that we've had in recent memory," Pawlenty said. "I know there has been some concern about timing, but the fact of the matter is that those two other floods, the special session was three months later. We've moved this up for understandable and good reasons and it needs to be moved up."

Last month's flooding in southeastern Minnesota killed seven and left behind millions of dollars in damage. Seven Minnesota counties are federal disaster areas, but the state had hoped to fill in some of the federal funding gaps.

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Gov. Pawlenty directed state agencies last week to spend $32 million in flood recovery but also said more was needed.

"It's very clear that we could not wait much longer," said DFL House Speaker Margaret Kelliher. "Folks have homes and businesses that are gutted to the studs. They don't have heating. They have issues with employment right now and we don't want to make that any worse."

Gov. Pawlenty and legislative leaders have been sparring over what should be included in a special session, how long it should last and when it would finish. The governor is the only one who can call a special session but the Legislature determines how long it will last. That is why Gov. Pawlenty has been working so hard to get an agreement before he called a special session.

The governor, and Republican and DFL legislative leaders say they are committed to getting the legislation passed quickly. Legislative leaders have also agreed they adjourn after that work is done.

"Both the governor and the Democrats in both the House and Senate worked hard to come to an agreement on this," said Bob Reinert, the Winona County administrator. "I think it's a real benefit for everyone down here. I'm very excited to know that our government is working to help the people affected by this flood."

But others are disappointed that it took so long to get an agreement. Stockton Mayor Jack Roberts says the session comes too late in the minds of his constituents.

"People are waiting so that they can make a decision and the anxiety along with the hurt and the loss is not for good for them. It's bad for their health," according to Roberts.

While the bulk of the state funding will be directed to the recovery efforts in southeastern Minnesota, the plan also includes disaster relief funding for other parts of the state. A portion of the package will go to drought relief. Another portion will be used to help with the Ham Lake fire that occurred earlier this spring.

What the special session won't address is a broader transportation funding package. Gov. Pawlenty said immediately after the I-35W bridge collapsed that he was interested in calling a special session to deal with the state's transportation system. He suggested that he was open to supporting a gas tax increase, something he opposed on the past. Pawlenty said he and DFL legislative leaders couldn't reach an agreement because he wanted to keep the gas tax increase at a nickel and they wanted more for roads and transit.

The other issue left out of the special session is increased aid to local governments. City and county officials have been urging the governor to call a special session so lawmakers could repass a vetoed tax bill. They argue that property taxes will go up since they won't receive any more money this year.

"We know that they have to help those people in southeast Minnesota. They have a problem down there that has to be addressed. But that's not the only problem facing Minnesota today and we need a broader agenda to address some of those issues," said John Sundvor with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.

It doesn't appear that those other issues will be addressed until lawmakers return for next year's regular session. Gov. Pawlenty sheepishly smiled when asked if this could be the first of several special sessions called this fall. He would only say he wants to focus on getting this week's special session done.