Disaster relief (and maybe taxes) subject of special session of Legislature

The Minnesota State Capitol
The Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., on Wednesday, June 19, 2013. State lawmakers will gather Monday for a one-day special session to approve relief for areas hit hard by storms in late June.
MPR Photo/Hart Van Denburg

State lawmakers gather in St. Paul Monday for a one-day special session to approve relief for areas hit hard by storms in late June.

An advance agreement among Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders from both parties will limit the session to just that one topic. But that won't prevent some Republicans from bringing up the tax law changes that they also wanted to see on the agenda.

A federal disaster declaration this summer included 18 Minnesota counties. They include Benton, Big Stone, Douglas, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Grant, Hennepin, Houston, McLeod, Morrison, Pope, Sibley, Stearns, Stevens, Swift, Traverse and Wilkin.

The resulting assistance from Washington will cover about $18 million of the damage caused by high winds and flooding. The state share, which will be approved in the special session, is $4.5 million.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said the money will come from the unused portion of a disaster aid bill passed during a special session a year ago.

"I think it's great that we're going to be able to deliver the local share, so that counties can get reimbursed for expenses they've already made and make the final investments that they need to get the recovery done," Thissen said. "I expect it that it's going to be a smooth process. We've involved a lot of people on the front end, and from what I hear from my colleagues in all four of the caucuses, it should be fairly smooth sailing."

Lawmakers also will consider a provision to free up $219,000 in existing funds for Nobles and Rock counties in southwestern Minnesota, hit by ice storms earlier this year.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said there was always bipartisan support for providing the storm-damage relief. But Hann said Republicans remain frustrated that the agreement on a special session did not include a proposed repeal of three recently passed tax increases.

Hann said lawmakers missed an opportunity to eliminate new taxes on business equipment repairs, warehousing services and telecommunication equipment purchases.

Hann and other Republicans blame Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, for standing in the way of repealing the taxes.

"It seems like everybody agrees, from the governor on down, that these are taxes that are not helpful, [that] we're putting burdens on hardworking Minnesotans, and that they were a mistake," Hann said. "Since they have the majorities and the power to undo them, why don't we undo them?"

Democrats point out that they were willing to exempt farm equipment repair from the business equipment repair tax, but Republicans weren't willing to accept that special session proposal.

Senate Majority leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said a tax debate can wait until next year.

"Let's get in," Bakk said. "Let's get the disaster relief done, and to the extent we stay out of bickering, and just get the work done that needs to be done, I think the public is best served."

The agreement signed by the governor and legislative leaders rules out action on other issues. But that won't stop some Republicans from introducing bills to make their point on taxes.

Dayton said that's their prerogative. But the governor said Republicans who favor those three repeals have never explained how they would plug the resulting $310 million hole in the state budget.

"It's easy to say 'we're for cutting taxes. We're for eliminating this tax or that,' " Dayton said. "The hard part, the responsible part is 'this is how we're going to balance the budget.' "

However, Dayton doesn't like the new business-to business taxes either, and he's willing to revisit some of them during the regular session that begins in February.

Dayton said he also expects a push next year to change the way the state allocates disaster aid, which would avoid the expense of calling a special session. Estimates from the House and Senate show the combined cost of a one-day special session is about $32,000.

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