Pawlenty, lawmakers eye flood-funding session
By Don Davis
State Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's governor and legislators are preparing for a special legislative session to fund flood relief even as flood waters continue to rise in parts of southern Minnesota.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty this morning announced that he and legislative leaders agreed to hold a one-day special session between Oct. 7 and 12, once preliminary damage estimates are available.
The governor already has declared 34 counties as disaster areas and by early next week expects to ask President Barack Obama to make them federal disaster areas, too.
Pawlenty said the state is expected to have $235 million available by the end of the budget cycle next June 30, and any state flood costs should be less than that.
While the governor called flooding "a major challenge for southern Minnesota," he had no estimate of damages and officials would not say how damage compares to other recent Minnesota floods.
"These communities will be rebuilt," Pawlenty promised.
It was not clear how much the state's already-hurting budget may be affected by the floods that hit the last half of last week. Flood waters continue to rise in some areas, including downtown St. Paul, not far from where the governor and lawmakers announced the special session.
Much remains to be decided, such as how much state cash flood efforts will need and how much money can be borrowed.
Pawlenty and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, both said, "We stand united."
"Once again tragedy has struck southern Minnesota," Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said.
Three years ago, floods devastated many southeast Minnesota communities. This year's floods stretch across the southern part of the state.
Just what federal aid is available will determine what the state needs to provide. A Federal Emergency Management Agency team began looking over the damage this morning and Pawlenty said a preliminary report should be available late this week or early next week. That is when he can seek a presidential disaster declaration, but there is no set time for Obama to decide.
Damage must be at least $6.4 million for a federal disaster to be declared, and state leaders said they expect that threshold to be crossed to provide local communities and the state help rebuilding infrastructure such as roads and water and sewer systems.
The 2007 floods also brought federal help to individual homeowners, but that is not certain for this year's disaster.
Also, federal help may be available for farmers; that may not be decided until after harvest this fall.
House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said he expects legislative committees to hold meetings days or hours before the short special session to gather public input. Pawlenty said he expects to agree on a flood-relief package before the session convenes.
The governor did not call a special session to help communities such as Wadena to recover from June tornadoes because leaders there felt they could wait until the regular legislation session begins in January. Sertich said flood damage needs to be repaired soon, before the winter sets in.
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.