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State lawmakers run through quick special session, approving aid for west central Minnesota communities

The storm that moved through the area in June uprooted numerous trees in Benson neighborhoods. Swift County, where Benson is located, will receive more than $900,000 in disaster aid for the damage suffered during the storm. Tribune photo by Tom Larson

ST. PAUL — Minnesota legislators breezed through disaster-relief approval Monday, about as fast as winds that uprooted thousands of trees in June, but spent far more time discussing what Republicans called a “man-made disaster” of tax increases.

Local governments in 18 counties from west central to southeast Minnesota will split $4.5 million lawmakers approved to help recover from a June 20-26 storm and flood disaster. Federal funds are to cover the remaining damage to public property.

Total damage was $18 million.

Also, Nobles and Rock counties and the city of Worthington were given easier access to $219,000 already approved for April ice storm recovery.

Deputy Director Joe Kelly of Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management told legislative committees that June storms produced winds topping 75 miles an hour, forced mudslides and closed roads. With 600,000 homes and businesses without electricity, it was the state’s largest-ever power outage.

“Thousands of mature trees were uprooted,” Kelly said

In some communities, rain fell at a pace that happens just once every 500 years, he added.

The Senate passed the bill 59-0, with eight absentees. The House voted 127-1 as six members were gone. It took four hours for the formalities, committee meetings, floor debate and the vote, one of the quickest special sessions in recent years.

Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill shortly after 4 p.m.

Funding for disaster relief comes from unspent money originally provided for last year’s northern Minnesota flooding and windstorms.

Eight counties represented by Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, will receive disaster-relief money, and he said he was grateful. “This was not a major disaster ... but even small disasters in communities are important where they happen.”

Sen. Lyle Koenen said in a news release that the disaster relief will help offset $917,625 in storm damages that hit in Swift County in June.

“The money actually comes from previous money that was appropriated for disasters in last year’s special session,” said Koenen, DFL-Clara City.

“So there’s no new money that is being used for this, just money that was unused from previous disasters.”

Koenen said the law required the Legislature to re-appropriate that money.

Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake, with seven counties in the disaster area, joined Republicans in complaining that a farm implement repair sales tax was not overturned Monday.

“After such a tough drought last year, and such drastic weather this year, our farmers need some relief,” McNamar said. “It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to get past partisan politics and get this bill worked into our bipartisan agreement.”

Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, co-authored a bill to repeal the tax on farm equipment repairs during the one-day special session.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, had proposed overturning the farm tax in the special session, and Dayton quickly jumped on board. But legislative leaders and Dayton never came to an agreement on the issue.

 “Our farmers have had to deal with a lot the last year: drought, a long winter, and then wet conditions that made it more difficult to plant crops,” said Sawatzky in a news release. “I will continue to push for the repeal of this tax and hope we can do it next session.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he could not promise any of the new taxes would be overturned next year. He said there will be a couple of budget reports before lawmakers return Feb. 25, critical information needed before deciding the future of any taxes.

Sawatzky said that according to data from the Department of Revenue, the farm equipment repair tax, which went into effect on July 1 of this year, will cost $28 million over two years.

Sawatzky said she also supports a bill that would delay the implementation of the warehouse tax until January 2015, and she would support a full repeal after that if there is still a surplus once schools have been paid back.

Lawmakers will reconvene next on Feb. 25 for the 2014 legislative session.

Dayton had wanted lawmakers in the special session to approve $1 million more in aid for communities in Rock and Nobles counties, with Worthington alone reporting nearly that much in ice storm damages not covered by other funds.

But that never happened. Instead, lawmakers approved allowing $219,000 already appropriated for communities affected by the storm to be easier for Nobles and Rock counties and Worthington to access.

“There are some unmet needs,” Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said, with thousands of trees on public property destroyed.

Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, said that his southwestern Minnesota communities need more aid, but he did not fight for it because legislative leaders rejected the idea.

“I know what the outcome is going to be,” he said before the vote.

Counties to get money for recovery from the June disaster are Benton, Big Stone, Douglas, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Grant, Hennepin, Houston, McLeod, Morrison, Pope, Sibley, Stearns, Stevens, Swift, Traverse and Wilkin. The funds are to go to local governments, with no aid available to home and business owners.

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