UPDATE: Lawmakers approve flood, tornado reliefST. PAUL -- Disaster relief is on its way to flood- and tornado-damaged communities, but officials said they may be back for more help next year.
By: Don Davis, The Republican Eagle
ST. PAUL -- 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 approved an $80 million appropriation 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, producing a Minnesota record number of storms, will get $6.6 million from the bill.
The House approved the measure 131-0.
Some state representatives complained that Republicans opposed to federal money were hypocritical when they accepted Washington funds for disaster relief. Others were critical of the $6.6 million in the bill that was pegged for Wadena and other communities affected by June tornados.
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 loses."
The bill contains $750,000 for Wadena to plan for a community center to combine swimming pool, ice rink, meeting rooms and other facilities destroyed in June. The new center would be next top the new high school, which will replace the destroyed school.
The House debate lasted less than an hour.
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 that he walked into a House chambers' side door shortly after the House convened.
Testimony in committee meetings was emotional Monday before the full Legislature met to approve disaster relief.
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 as state lawmakers began to look into funding disaster relief for southern Minnesota floods and a June 17 tornado outbreak.
All businesses in the southeast Minnesota community were wiped out, along with half of the homes.
Committees also heard from Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden, who said more than 200 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged in the June tornado event.
Wadena wants to build a new community center to replace several facilities destroyed in June, including a hockey rink and swimming pool.
"The fun things to do in Wadena are gone," Wolden said.
He told committee members that the $750,000 planning money in the bill is only a starting point. He said the community will hold a fund drive before returning to the Legislature next year to ask the state to borrow money to help build the community center.
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 didnt' anticipate rolling 17 school buses into a pile," Skogen said.
Rep. Mark Murdock, R-Ottertail, said the bill is needed. "We're Minnesotans, we help each other out."
Added Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa: "This is the good work that government does ... to help those in positions that truly can't help themselves."
The bill represents one of the quickest state responses to a major flood disaster. It 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.
Pawlenty and legislative leaders approved the bill last week after days of staff members pounding out details.
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, as well as tax breaks and 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. The SBA also will provide loans to businesses of any size and non-profit organizations.
A broader federal program to help individuals affected by floods was not approved, but the still bill does target some money to individuals.
Some legislators have talked about passing other bills, primarily one getting tough on bullying in schools. However, legislative leaders frowned on that and pledged to limit the session to disaster relief.
Six bills other than the main disaster relief one were introduced in the House, including those dealing with school bullying and researching autism.
Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, offered -- and quickly withdrew -- an amendment on the disaster bill to increase unemployment insurance payments. He also offered a separate bill on the topic.
"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.