Legislators prepare for disaster-relief session
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators head back to St. Paul Monday to approve spending disaster-relief funds in what is supposed a neat, clean afternoon affair where lawmakers hear the proposal, vote for it and go home.
At least that is what Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he and legislative leaders want and expect. Some legislators promise to bring up other bills, but they may have little chance since any item other than disaster funds would need massive support even to be debated.
Pawlenty on Thursday said he would call a special session to begin at 1 p.m. Monday. He wants it to last less than a day, but once lawmakers return to session, he has no control over when they leave. He could, however, veto any bills they pass.
Legislators will consider a nearly $80 million disaster bill, with most going to flood relief and $6.6 million to tornado aid in the Wadena area.
Lawmakers plan to begin committee hearings on the disaster spending at 8 a.m. Monday.
Pawlenty's special session call followed by hours President Barack Obama declaring 21 southern Minnesota counties a federal disaster area after rains of up to 10 inches fell late last month, causing extensive flooding. Obama's declaration means that debris removal and public facility repair will be funded with 75 percent federal funds.
"We thank the federal government for providing assistance that will help Minnesota communities in their rebuilding efforts, and we look forward to their decision on help for individuals who were affected by flooding last month," Pawlenty said. "While we're hopeful that the decision on individual assistance will be made soon, the state will not delay in its response."
Pawlenty on Thursday sent the Small Business Administration a letter asking that it make low-interest loans available to individuals, businesses and non-profit groups that sustained flood damages. Other federal aid to individuals probably will not be available, he said, because "it is largely formula driven" and the formula did not show there was enough need.
There is a flap about whether two Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers should bring up a bill Monday to make it tougher for school kids to bully others. That did not go over well with those in flooded areas.
"I am extremely disappointed that House and Senate Democrats are trying to satisfy their insatiable appetite to create more government mandates during a special session," said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Wabasha, whose district includes three communities hit hard by September flooding. "Flood relief is desperately needed in southern Minnesota."
Pawlenty said existing laws make bullying illegal and if lawmakers want changes, they could bring them up in the regular session in January. Pawlenty said he thinks the session will be limited to disaster relief and he hopes to sign the appropriations bill into law Monday evening.
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, both DFL-Minneapolis, released a statement saying they doubted anything other than disaster relief would pass: "Although there are many important issues that confront our state, we would anticipate that unless an issue has very broad bipartisan support in both the Senate and House, it is unlikely it would be considered on Monday. We anticipate the flood and tornado disaster relief will have such broad support it will be passed on Monday."
The governor, a probable 2012 presidential candidate, said he wanted to hold the session today, but legislative leaders did not agree. He also said he was open to one on Saturday, and again was rejected by lawmakers. Pawlenty plans to campaign in New Hampshire Saturday, but told reporters he will be in Minnesota whenever needed.
The special session will deal with the state costs for the flood and the state portion of $35 million in damage from a series of June 17 tornadoes.
Wadena was included in the state disaster bill after Pawlenty originally said community leaders told him they could wait until the regular legislative session in January for aid. But, he added, as long the Legislature was considering disaster assistance, it made sense to include Wadena's needs now.
"All their facilities will be rebuilt," Pawlenty said of Wadena, which lost a community center that included an ice rink, the high school, an outdoor pool and other public facilities.