GOP lawmakers taken aback by $190M flood proposal

Cody Inn collapse
Part of the Cody Inn sits in a ravine Friday, June 22, 2012, after it collapsed into a ravine on Wednesday, in Duluth, Minn.
AP Photo/Bob King, Duluth News Tribune

Gov. Mark Dayton's administration is proposing a $189 million disaster relief package for lawmakers to consider later this month during a special legislative session.

The plan was released Tuesday during a State Capitol meeting aimed at reviewing the damage caused in 15 counties by early summer storms and floods. But Republican legislative leaders said they were surprised by the price tag and aren't sure that the state can afford it.

The proposal to help many flood-damage communities and clean up downed trees in northern forests relies on a combination of bonding and general fund appropriations.

It would tap three existing transportation-related accounts as well as the state budget reserve. The state relief would come on top of the millions in federal disaster aid already coming for public infrastructure repairs.

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Kris Eide, director of the state's Homeland Security and Emergency Management division, acknowledged the big price tag. But she also told lawmakers that the storms caused an unusual amount of damage over a large part of the state. She said the proposed package is similar to one passed in a 2007 special session for flood damage in southeastern Minnesota.

"I've been doing this for 25 years," Eide said. "I have been the director for three flash floods, and we don't usually get really excited about a lot things. We think we've seen them all. But this was a big disaster."

Over the past 15 years, Minnesota lawmakers have responded to 32 natural disaster with appropriations totaling $488 million. State Sen. Claire Robling, chairman of the Senate finance committee said the administration's proposal was surprisingly high.

"We knew that there was a disaster declaration from FEMA," said Robling, R- Jordan. "We expected about $27 million for a state and local match. And I think the total of this package is about $180 million for the state. So there's a little sticker shock here for us."

Democrats who represent some of the hardest hit areas were more accepting of the proposed spending. State Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said the state's response to natural disasters has always been significant, and well above the required federal match.

"I think it's been something that I know I've always been proud of providing to disaster -prone areas, and hope that we can see forward to supporting the administration," Lourey said.

State Rep. Kerry Gauthier, DFL-Duluth, said he was surprised the price tag wasn't higher.

"It isn't a river that flooded. It is something that devastated a whole region, and that's something we need to keep in mind," Gauthier said. "We're not asking for a free handout. We're asking for a lift up."

State Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, repeatedly stressed that the administration's proposal is not the final bill. Holberg, R-Lakeville, said she too has concerns about the size of the plan and its potential impact on budget reserves.

"I'm a pretty detailed person," Holberg said. "I'm going to have to talk to the commissioners from the various areas[and ask] 'How did you get to these numbers? What is this going to cover? How preliminary is it?' We need to do it right."

The group of Legislators adjourned without a definite plan to meet again. Republican House and Senate leaders said earlier this week that Aug. 24 is the tentative date for a special session. But Dayton, a Democrat, said again today that he'll first need to reach a solid agreement with those leaders.

"Once I call them back I can't make them leave," Dayton said. "So we need a prior agreement on what they're going to deal with, what they're not going to deal with and how long it's going to take."

Dayton said he's confident that Republican leaders will honor their promise to keep the special session focused on providing the help that many Minnesotans urgently need.