Legislators approve disaster relief funding in sweeping votes
by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor
Following an agreement made by Gov. Mark Dayton and by Democratic and Republican leaders to consider only a disaster relief bill in a special session, the Minnesota Legislature on Monday, Sept. 9, approved $4.7 million in disaster relief.
Funding totaling $4.5 million was designated for 18 counties affected by flooding June 20-26, 2013.
An appropriation of $219,141 was also approved from the general fund to the commissioner of employment and economic development. The money will be used for grants to local units of government for the cost of debris clearance and other disaster expenses resulting from damage caused by the severe winter storm that occurred April 9-11, 2013.
The relief is provided by the state as a match for federal funding. Eighteen Minnesota counties will benefit from $18 million in total funding. They include the counties of Benton, Big Stone, Douglas, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Grant, Houston, McLeod, Hennepin, Morrison, Pope, Sibley, Stearns, Stevens, Swift, Traverse and Wilkin.
The Minnesota Senate approved the disaster relief by a 59-0 vote and the Minnesota House followed with approval on a 127-1 vote. Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, was the only no vote. She argued that her home county of Ramsey missed qualifying for relief because it reported costs were lower than the per-capita standard set by the federal government.
Both legislative bodies adjourned indefinitely after passing the disaster relief bill.
Bipartisan support for the disaster relief bill did not overshadow arguments made in the Senate and the House to take the opportunity to repeal business-to-business taxes during the one-day special session.
Especially in the Senate, many Republican members spoke about fixing the tax mess by repealing designated taxes. Prior to making comments about repealing taxes, Senate members offered their support for the disaster relief bill.
Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said “tragedy is unfolding” with 300 jobs possibly being lost in Lino Lakes because of business taxes. Business taxes passed by the last Legislature, led by the DFL, have driven individuals out of business and disrupted family life, Chamberlain said.
Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Cass County, said the disaster relief will bring $133,000 to Morrison County. Gazelka said he heard very little, however, about the disaster caused by the storms. He said he heard more concern echoed by farmers and small business owners threatened by taxes.
Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, said more work needs to be done by the federal government and by the state to improve the disaster relief procedures.
In the House, Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, agreed that more work can be done through state agencies to improve the relief process. Davids represents Houston and Fillmore counties, both accounting for $8.4 million or 46 percent of the total of $18 million in relief.
There was a cry for repeal of taxes in the House, too, but it was not as dominant as it was in the Senate.
Taxes in need of repeal included the warehouse tax, farm equipment tax and the telecom tax, Republican lawmakers claimed.
“We are missing a great opportunity today to make a wrong a right,” Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, said. He said he spoke with constituents who said they have developed a plan to move their business to Florida over five years. This would mean a loss of 37 workers.
Hall said his constituents have asked him: “When did job makers become tax targets?” He said his constituents also told him, “I thought only the rich were going to be taxed, but everyone is being hit.” Hall challenged the governor about an overreach. “Govern, don’t hide,” Hall said.
Republican Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, thanked Dayton for calling the special session to gain disaster relief funds. He said more work needed to be done next session on repealing some unpopular taxes.
Hann asked Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, if he would agree to possibly repealing the unpopular taxes during the 2014 legislative session, which begins on Feb. 25, 2014.
Bakk said that bills undoubtedly will be introduced about taxes, but the first $400 million of the budget is committed to paying back the school funding shift.
He said the farm equipment tax of $28 million could have been fixed in this session by taking from the bottom line of $46 million. He said Republican leadership wanted all or nothing. The total of all the taxes targeted for repeal by Republicans amounted to $313 million, Bakk said.
Bakk thanked the Republican leadership of Sen. Hann and House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and thanked House Speaker Paul Thissen and Dayton for the work on the special session.
Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said the warehouse tax should be repealed, as it was in the states of Massachusetts, Maryland, Florida and Michigan.
“We should be repealing this now because it is hurting families, businesses and the economy,” Ortman said. “We should be fixing it because of the failed leadership” of Dayton at the Capitol, Ortman said.
Former Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, said he was involved in three other special sessions dedicated to providing disaster relief.
“It is a good bill, and it shows we came together collectively as a state,” Senjem said.
“There is certainly another looming disaster of an economic nature that is worrisome to me,” Senjem said, speaking of taxes he said will hurt Minnesotans. He said he was convinced there were 34 votes needed for repeal in the Senate. “The corner office (governor’s office) is not interested in this today,” he said.
Sen. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin,author of the House bill, said 23 counties in the state were actually impacted by storms. Eighteen reached the federal threshold, she said. She praised the Legislature for putting politics aside and doing what’s right for the state.
Davids thanked all government officials who worked to gain help for the counties of Houston and Fillmore that were ravaged by the disaster. The day after the disaster, Davids said he saw businesses floating down the river and also saw bridges and roads that had been washed out.
“Public safety was No. 1, and local officials did a great job,” Davids said.
Former House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, also praised Minnesotans for coming together to pass this disaster relief legislation. He said, however, the Legislature was not taking advantage of an opportunity to deal with repealing the farm service repair affecting people around the state.
Daudt said Minnesota has a rich tradition of supporting communities in times of need. He also spoke of what he termed the man-made disaster of the Democrats passing $2.1 billion in taxes.
House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said legislators today were working together. She also said she saw companies in Minnesota growing and saw real growth in Minnesota.
The cost of the special session was reported by legislative officials at $33,000.
Howard Lestrud can be reached at email@example.com.