Lawmakers approve flood, tornado relief
ST. PAUL -- State disaster relief is on its way to flood- and tornado-damaged communities, but officials said they may be back for more help next year.
Minnesota legislators unanimously approved $80 million in disaster relief during a brief special session Monday, with most heading to southern Minnesota communities hit by floods fed by record September rains. Wadena and other communities affected by a June 17 tornado outbreak will get $6.6 million from the bill.
The House quickly approved the measure 131-0 and the Senate 66-0. The governor signed the bill less than three hours later.
Some state representatives were critical of the $6.6 million in the bill pegged for Wadena.
Rep. Bev Scalze, DFL-Little Canada, said Wadena's plans to build a new community center to replace facilities destroyed by the June 17 tornado are inappropriate.
"A desire for a changed location is not a disaster," she said. "We should focus on flood relief for people who did not have enough insurance to cover their losses."
The bill contains $750,000 for Wadena to plan a community center combining swimming pool, ice rink, meeting rooms and other facilities destroyed around the city in June.
Rep. Mark Murdock, R-Ottertail, said the only new item in the community center plan is an indoor pool, to replace an outdoor one the tornado destroyed.
Like other lawmakers representing disaster areas, Murdock said the plan is to return next year with requests for more state money. The borrowed state funds would be used with insurance money and private donations to build the community center.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty said that in every disaster, more financial needs crop up as rebuilding continues, so he predicted Wadena and other communities would be back for more money.
The House disaster-relief debate lasted less than an hour, with senators needing even less time.
Most of the 201 legislators attended the session, including Rep. Dave Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, who received a kidney transplant last week. The frail-looking Dill arrived to a standing ovation as representatives noticed him walking into a House chamber's side door shortly after the House convened.
Testimony in committee meetings leading up to the special session was emotional at times.
Zumbro Falls Mayor Alan VanDeWalker's voice cracked as he told a Senate committee about last month's flood.
"This has basically wiped out my town," the 20-year veteran mayor said.
Committees also heard from Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden, who said more than 200 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged in the June tornado.
"The fun things to do in Wadena are gone," Wolden said, talking about the loss of the pool and ice rink.
The community has a chance to combine those facilities into a new building next to a new high school that replaces one destroyed on June 17, the mayor said.
"We have the unique opportunity to save millions of dollars," Wolden said of the new combined facility. "Doing things once, doing things right."
Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt, said more help may be needed when the Legislature returns on Jan. 4.
"This is a start," Skogen said.
Among funds in the bill are some to help the Wadena-Deer Creek school district. "We didn't anticipate rolling 17 school buses into a pile," Skogen said.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, who represents flooded areas, added: "This is the good work that government does ... to help those in positions that truly can't help themselves."
The bill provides funds for debris removal, repair of government facilities, some individual assistance and tax breaks and tax deadline extensions for some people, businesses and governments.
State funds not only will provide flood relief, but $20 million is set aside to help reduce future floods.
Much of the funding is to fill the gap left after federal money pays 75 percent of costs to repair or replace public facilities ranging from buildings to roads. There also are funds in the bill to help schools that face the prospect of fewer students and higher transportation costs from the disasters. Also included are tax breaks and tax deadline extensions for some of those affected.
The only federal aid approved for individuals is a low-interest loan program from the Small Business Administration, but some help is available via state funds. The SBA also will provide loans to businesses of any size and non-profit organizations.
Some legislators talked about passing other bills, primarily one getting tough on bullying in schools. However, legislative leaders limited the 140-minute session to disaster relief.
Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, offered -- and quickly withdrew -- an amendment to the disaster bill to increase unemployment insurance payments.
"We have a lot of emergencies going on in this state," Rukavina said, including the economy, which he said "is in shambles."
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., the parent company of the Woodbury Bulletin.