Flood relief secured, but regrets remain
ST. PAUL - Three Minnesota senators lined up at the ornate door leading into the Senate chamber early Wednesday, forming a reception line thanking their colleagues for supporting a disaster relief bill.
Slightly more than eight hours after they convened in special session Tuesday night, legislators headed home after passing a $157 million aid package for southeastern Minnesota.
Western and northeastern flood and fire victims also receive a cut of state funds, and farmers plagued by this summer's drought also are to get aid.
The House adjourned at 1:08 a.m., followed eight minutes later by the Senate. The governor signed the bill at 2:43 a.m., calling it the largest and quickest disaster relief in recent state history.
"Now we have a lot of work to do from here," Pawlenty said of rebuilding efforts. "All of this is not going to happen overnight."
The mood in the Capitol was a mixture of celebration and disappointment. The celebration was because little more than three weeks after flooding devastated much of southeastern Minnesota state financial help was on the way.
Disappointment came from what lawmakers did not do - such as passing a transportation funding measure or one reducing property taxes.
Sen. Steve Murphy, one of the trio shaking senators' hands as they left the special session, touched on his biggest disappointment when one colleague brought up a sore subject: "Transportation next time."
Murphy, Senate transportation chairman, said he expects a tough time passing a transportation package next year, but he said work will resume on forming one immediately. The Red Wing Democrat said he will work with Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty on a deal, but he predicted legislators will be forced to override a third Pawlenty veto on the subject if more money is to flow to road, bridge and transit projects.
Murphy and other Democrats complained that Pawlenty would not agree to provide new money to transportation.
"I think it's going to take compromise," Pawlenty said of reaching a transportation agreement.
House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, gave up on a favorite Democratic-Farmer-Labor topic - property tax relief - three hours into the special session after it was apparent it would go nowhere without the governor's support. He promised the subject will be a prime topic during the Legislature's 2008 regular session, which begins Feb. 12.
Flood-damaged southeast Minnesota and other areas of the state hit by natural disasters received the Legislature's attention Tuesday night and early Wednesday.
The House approved the legislation 130-0; the Senate followed with a 62-1 vote. The flood relief bill would about send the southeast $157 million, split almost evenly between cash and state borrowing, for debris cleanup, infrastructure improvements, housing and other needs.
Republican Rep. Steve Drazkowski of Wabasha, a newly elected lawmaker who represents several flooded towns, said he did not anticipate his first speech as a state legislator to be about a natural disaster in his area.
"It is upon us and it is our responsibility and that is what we are called to do," Drazkowski told House colleagues.
Murphy applauded the Legislature's work, but said "it pales in comparison to the work that thousands of people are doing in southeastern Minnesota to try to recover from the flood."
"It's going to take years and years and years of constant attention to make this half right for those folks down there," Murphy said.
Pawlenty said based on previous disasters, it is possible more flood assistance will be before the Legislature next year.
Communities suffering from the recent flood receive most of the funding, but there is another $5.3 million for other disasters.
The western Minnesota town of Browns Valley, which experienced flooding in March, is expected to receive $200,000 in state aid. That funding was included in a tax bill the Legislature passed earlier this year but was vetoed by Pawlenty.
Rep. Paul Marquart, who represents Browns Valley, said the community has a small tax base so flood-related costs could cause a spike in property taxes.
"Ultimately, it's money the city can use to help keep property taxes down," Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said.
Crookston, which also has experienced flooding in recent years, will receive $400,000 in additional local government aid over the next two years.
An additional $1 million is directed to Cook County for costs related to forest fires earlier this year.
The bill also included $3.7 million for agricultural disaster assistance, including loans and livestock and feed grants. That is meant both for farmers hit by the flood and the summer drought.
The bill lawmakers approved actually totals almost $218 million. There was $2 million in state funding for emergency response to the Interstate 35W bridge collapse last month and a transfer of another $53 million in federal funding for the bridge collapse.