$180 million heads to disaster victimsThe Minnesota Legislature overwhelmingly approved spending $180 million so disaster-stricken communities can pick up the pace of recovery and make repairs they would not be able to accomplish on their own.
By: Don Davis and Jaime DeLage, Pine Journal
ST. PAUL – Help is on the way.
The Minnesota Legislature sent that message Friday when it overwhelmingly approved spending $180 million so disaster-stricken communities can pick up the pace of recovery and make repairs they would not be able to accomplish on their own.
Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill shortly after the House passed the bill 125-3 and Senate 60-7 in a special legislative session lasting less than two hours. It was one of the shortest sessions in memory.
The session came as a result of a 10-inch rainfall during 24 hours in June damaged roads, homes and other northeastern Minnesota facilities. The same storm affected other Minnesota communities from the west-central to southeastern parts of the state to a lesser extent.
Northeastern Minnesota will especially benefit from Friday’s action.
The package provides money that residents can borrow to repair their homes and businesses, and in some cases those loans will not need to be repaid in full. It also provides money for cities, counties and other government agencies to repair public property such as roads and bridges and help restore thousands of acres of fallen timber.
Carlton County was represented at the hearings by County Coordinator Dennis Genereau, Land Commissioner Greg Bernu and Moose Lake Flood Administrator Tom Paull.
Genereau said he spoke to the Senate Finance Committee along with Duluth Mayor Don Ness and several others.
“I explained the work we’ve been doing as part of the long-term flood recovery effort,” Genereau said. “I let them know our folks are hardy and hard-working. We’re proud of how much people have done to help themselves and their neighbors; folks have really dug in. But that alone isn’t enough. We need help from the state and federal government. The money [from the special session] won’t make the problem go away, but it will help keep us moving forward.”
While the disaster-relief bill received broad legislative support, some legislators urged a yes vote by reminding fellow members that the June and July storms touched more than just the Duluth area.
Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, offered up a picture of how serious the July 2 wind storm was: “If anyone has ever seen an 80-foot red pine bend over and touch the ground not once, not twice, but three times before snapping off – you’d be in awe.”
Even a Duluth lawmaker explained it was not just his area that needs help.
“This was a huge part of the state,” Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said, pointing to Aitkin, 100 miles away as an example.
Gov. Mark Dayton’s office released figures showing 93 percent of the public damage came in the northeast, with 4.3 percent in the west central and 1.7 percent in the southeast. Nearly all of the individual property damage in summer flood and wind storms was in the northeast.
More than 66 percent of public infrastructure damage was in St. Louis County, with 22 percent in Carlton County. But 59 percent of individual damage, such as to homes and businesses, was in Carlton, and 25 percent was in St. Louis.
Some money will begin to flow almost immediately, House Ways and Means Chairwoman Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, said. It will be a couple of years before other funds are spent.
Northeast officials thanked legislators for returning to St. Paul to consider the needs of areas covered by the disaster bill.
The relief package will provide almost $168 million in new funds, coming from both the state selling bonds and using some from the state budget reserve.
Nearly $13 million more will be available from funds that have been appropriated in past years, mostly for disaster relief, but not spent.
The biggest spending is $79 million for transportation, especially to repair or replace washed-out streets and highways.
Homeowners will get $12.7 million, while businesses can access $15 million in recovery funds.
The state will provide low-interest loans, mostly to low-income Minnesotans affected by the storms, but only after they are turned down by private sources such as banks and insurance companies and the federal Small Business Administration.
The bill also funds clean-up of many government facilities, as well as repairing erosion problems caused by the flood.
Of the disaster package, most goes to flood damage. However, $7.9 million is set aside for wind damage that occurred July 2, mostly along U.S. Hwy. 2 in northern Minnesota.
The federal government eventually will pay more than $200 million to Minnesota, but some checks may not arrive for up to six years. The disaster bill provides funds to do needed repairs now, and once federal money arrives, it will be put in state bank accounts.
Many haven’t applied
As of Friday, 154 homeowners impacted by the June flood had begun the disaster aid process through the Small Business Administration, according to Drew Digby, spokesman for the multi-county long-term recovery committees.
But about 10 times that many people should at least consider applying for assistance, officials believe. Digby said some people had insurance and others are using bank loans to rebuild, but many are stumbling over the idea that they need to apply – and then be denied for – an SBA loan in order to qualify for other assistance that will be offered now that the Legislature has approved an aid package.
He hopes that news of the home and business assistance available through the disaster package will help bring more people into the system.
“Up until now, it’s been a waiting game,” Digby said.
More Moose Lake help
Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said the aid package would help “cobble together” Moose Lake’s flood damaged school so that it is ready for students Sept. 4, but the school would need more help soon.
He said the property-poor school district does not have the money to replace what was already a substandard building even before the flood, and the Legislature would have to consider more substantial aid for the district in the next sessions.
“We will need to come back to the Moose Lake school,” he said.
Support not unanimous
Seven senators and three representatives voted against the aid package, though they said it wasn’t necessarily because they opposed the assistance.
Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said he objected to the fact that the bill was crafted by House and Senate leadership and only two legislative committees discussed the bill, but legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton had agreed that no changes would be allowed to the bill.
He said the Legislature has approved 32 disaster bills in the past 15 years, and this one is far richer than average.
“I just think we needed some answers on that, and we didn’t get them,” Thompson said. “I would have liked to have had a chance to understand it.”
Sens. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, and Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, who served on a working group that helped shape the legislation, said there was plenty of opportunity for public input. Reinert said the bill passed quickly because legislators were comfortable with what was in it.
“The House had it done in an hour, which is miraculous for the House,” Reinert said. “Everybody had an opportunity to know what was in the bill and why it was in there. “
Lourey said the size of the bill was easily explained.
“Because it was a big disaster,” he said. “We had over $108 million in public infrastructure damage alone.”
Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, said he would have offered some amendments that could have saved money without harming disaster victims, but he didn’t get the opportunity.
“Maybe you liked the bill. Maybe you didn’t like the bill. But I hope you didn’t like the process,” Nienow said.
Homeowners still struggling
Friday’s most emotional testimony came from Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, who said her constituents are frustrated because those who control government funds often said, “We don’t do basements.”
She said that hurts those affected by floods because they need furnaces, water heaters and other things in those basements.
Holberg told Murphy that some state funds will be available to people with basement problems.
Murphy said people of all ages have come together to help victims.
“People in northeastern Minnesota have been working so hard this summer,” Murphy told fellow representatives. “If they did not have damage to their businesses and homes, they know somebody who did.”
Pine Journal editor Jana Peterson contributed to this story.