Early-morning action sends flood aid to SE Minnesota

Signs special session bill
Surrounded by legislators from areas hard hit by recent flooding, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty signs legislation providing relief aid to southeastern Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Gov. Pawlenty signed the bill at 2:43 a.m. Wednesday, just two hours after it passed the House and Senate. Pawlenty praised the Legislature for taking quick action on the package

"We have a lot of work to do from here," Pawlenty said. "In dollar amounts, this is the largest state portion of disaster assistance in wake or any disaster in the modern history of the state. This money will be available effective Thursday, but all of this is not going to happen overnight."

Back in session
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher gavels a special session to order.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Both legislative chambers started considering the disaster relief package at 5 p.m. But lawmakers spent most of the evening behind closed doors massaging the final legislation. Floor debate only began after 10 p.m.

In the end, the House unanimously passed the bill on a 130-0 vote. The Senate passed it 62-1.

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Lawmakers who represent the southeastern Minnesota communities damaged by the flood expressed heartfelt thanks. Rep. Ken Tschumper, DFL-La Crescent, said the flash flooding that killed seven could have hit any Minnesota community.

"What happened in Rushford and Elba and Goodview could happen to any of us, to any of our districts," he said. "We all need to keep that in mind. It can disappear like the morning fog, and all of the orderliness and the dependability and reliability and predictability can be gone someday when it starts raining."

Tschumper and other lawmakers from southeastern Minnesota have been urging Gov. Pawlenty to call a special session as soon as possible.

The funding will provide forgiveable loans to residents and business owners who choose to rebuild. There is also money to rebuild damaged bridges, roads and infrastructure.

Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes
"I have families who have not had a paycheck in three weeks," said Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes, DFL-Winona. "These folks are in a world of hurt."
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes, DFL-Winona, said some of her constituents lost everything in the flood and haven't cashed a paycheck in nearly three weeks.

"We may be jobless, we may be homeless, we may be carless, roadless, bridgeless, businessless; but we're not hopeless," she said.

The bill also provides recovery funding for other disasters. There's money for communities hurt by the Ham Lake fire along the Gunflint Trail, drought relief, and money for Crookston and Browns Valley which were hit by spring flooding. It also directs some federal money to rebuild the I-35W bridge. In total, the bill spends $218 million.

The only other legislation passed was a minor election-related bill. That wasn't enough for some lawmakers. Some wanted to pass a property tax relief package. Others wanted to pass a comprehensive transportation funding package in light of the I-35W bridge collapse.

Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, was the only legislator in either chamber to vote against the disaster relief bill. She characterized it as a protest vote since transportation wasn't addressed.

"It seemed to me that the only way that I could express that very, very deep disappointment was to vote against the bill, which I thought was only half of what we should be doing," Rest said.

Immediately after the Aug. 1 bridge collapse, Gov. Pawlenty had indicated support for a gas tax increase, something he vetoed twice before. He later said a deal couldn't be reached because DFL legislative leaders wanted too broad a funding package.

But that doesn't mean transportation funding won't be on the minds of lawmakers and the governor. Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson said the Pawlenty administration is growing a bit nervous that promises of federal funding to rebuild the I-35W bridge may be tangled up in Congress.

"There is some question whether a highway transportation bill will pass; they're running into the same issues we have here," according to Hanson. "Is there going to be a gas tax? It's all to say that we're less confident now than we were even 10 days ago, or even last week, that we're going to get the money by the end of September or October."

Hanson said he urged the Legislature to free up some general fund money, so there was a backup funding plan in place for the bridge rebuild in case the federal funding doesn't come quickly.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said he flat-out rejected that idea out of fear that MnDOT would divert money for other road projects to rebuild the bridge.

"There may be a need to have another special session between now and February," Murphy said.

At an early morning news conference, Pawlenty echoed the concern about whether the federal government may not deliver the funding in time. But he also said the Minnesota Department of Transportation should be able to use existing funds to offset the costs until the federal money comes through.

He downplayed any talk of calling another special session, saying everything else can wait until the Legislature comes back for its 2008 session in February.