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Don Davis and Jaime Delage, Forum Communications, Published August 25 2012

Dayton signs bill, $180M heads to disaster victims

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.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness told lawmakers that he understands they were “frustrated and angry” that they were discussing spending money for rebuilding, not for new work.

“We are fixing what was not broken before a 24-hour storm,” Ness said.

Ness’ 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.

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.

Ness told the story of a Duluth Lincoln Park resident who had held onto her home after a layoff by taking a new job an hour-and-a-half away, only to have her home’s furnace, water heater and electrical systems destroyed by the flood.

“The bill before you gives her hope that she’ll be able to stay in her home and reap the reward of her hard work,” Ness said.

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.

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. Highway 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.

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.”

Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, reminded his colleagues that they were voting on more than flood recovery.

The July 2 wind storm damaged “much of our red and white pine forests, parks and campgrounds and, most importantly, private businesses and much of our resort community,” he said.

By the numbers

Disaster relief money would come from:

• $74.6 million, general tax funds.

• $91.7 million, bond sales.

• $14 million, trunk highway fund cash.

• $12.7 million from money previously approved for disaster recovery but not spent.