Gov. Dayton signs flood relief bill

Vermilion Street
A flood-damaged section of Vermillion Street in Thomson, Minn. on Monday, July 9, 2012.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

Gov. Mark Dayton has signed the $167.5 million flood relief package for Duluth and other communities damaged by floods and storms.

The Minnesota Legislature had approved the package just hours ago today, sending it to the governor for his approval.

The bipartisan bill breezed through both chambers with little debate on Friday. Most of the money will help repair roads, bridges and parks and other public property. But businesses and individuals also will receive some of the state aid.

Shortly after signing the disaster relief bills, the governor released the following statement:

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"I am very pleased that the legislature has passed the disaster relief bill to assist Minnesotans whose homes, businesses, and communities were ravaged earlier this summer by severe natural disasters. I have just received this legislation, and I have signed it into law.

"I commend legislators for honoring their promise to limit this special session to disaster relief, which they passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support. This help to Minnesotans, who have suffered terrible misfortunes, is a shining example of the spirit which makes our state so very special."

Earlier this week, Dayton announced details of the final bill after reaching an agreement with House and Senate leaders. Dayton, a Democrat, said he needed that agreement before calling the special session.

But it didn't take long for a couple of legislators to object to the pre-determined process. On the floor of the Minnesota House, state Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, said the Legislature had surrendered its responsibility to the five people who signed the agreement.

"We've got some select anointed few who have made all these decisions, and we are to walk in here like lemmings and rubber stamp it," Jordan said. "My friends, you represent 30,000 to 50,000 people. How can you do that to the people you represent? It's unconscionable."

Buesgens voted "no" on the final package. None of the lawmakers who represent the damaged areas questioned the process. They uniformly praised it.

State Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said he thought House and Senate leaders, along with the governor's office, did an excellent job responding to the disaster.

"I think this was a very nonpolitical process," Huntley said. "I think the result is a very good bill, and I would congratulate everyone that was involved in that."

The House passed the bill by a vote of 125-3. In the Senate the vote was 60-7. On the Senate floor, state Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, credited previous legislatures for putting the template for disaster responses into state statute.

"Those of us in northeastern Minnesota, we've never been through a disaster of this magnitude before, and it was very, very difficult to try to digest," Kerrick said.

The bill allocates state resources to help with repairs in Duluth and other flood-damaged communities. It also cleans up downed trees throughout a large area of northern forests.

The money comes from a combination of sources, including the general fund, bonding, budget reserves, tax relief and existing accounts related to transportation and economic development.

State Rep. Tom Kelly, R-Red Wing, explained that a $15 million allocation to the Minnesota Investment Fund will help damaged businesses.

"It's important that we make sure that we are delivering the funds specifically to those businesses that have been affected," Kelly said. "So, we put in criteria to say you must apply and must use these guidelines to make sure that we are delivering these dollars to the appropriate places."

The state relief comes on top of the millions of dollars in disaster aid already approved by the federal government for public infrastructure repairs.

Local government officials were pleased. During a morning House Ways and Means Committee meeting, St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg thanked lawmakers for the assistance.

"St. Louis County is in a world of hurt," Dahlberg said. "And without the help of the Legislature, frankly, it would be years for us to recover, to get some semblance of recovery."

One other point of contention with the bill surfaced during a morning Senate Finance Committee hearing. State Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, objected to a $1 million allocation to the Department of Natural Resources to compensate for lost timber sales in areas where lots of trees were blown down. Parry said it didn't seem right when private businesses weren't getting similar compensation.

"How do we justify that?" Parry asked. "How do I go back to Steele and Rice County businesses when they that see we're bailing out our own state government because of loss of sales, and yet we had businesses that couldn't even keep their doors open? They lost sales."

Parry voted "no" on the final bill.

The $167 million package is about $23 million less than the amount Dayton originally requested.

During an unrelated event Friday in Duluth, Dayton told reporters that he hoped the aid package is sufficient. If not, he said additional needs can be addressed in the 2013 legislative session, which begins in January.