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Special session delayed, but Wadena wants to be part of it

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ST. PAUL -- Wadena-area leaders scrambled to get their request for tornado relief funding included in a special legislative session being called to help flooded southern Minnesotans, but they will have to wait along with their water-logged cousins.

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A special session is planned to deal with flooding, but Gov. Tim Pawlenty late Friday afternoon announced it will not happen today, Monday, as he wanted, because the federal government has yet to approve a disaster declaration. Until the Obama administration does that, the state does not know how much it would need to kick in.

Pawlenty spokesman Bruce Gordon said work on a bill appropriating disaster money will continue until Minnesota knows how much federal aid will be available.

No deal has been reached as to how much, if any, tornado-relief money will be included.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said her goal is "ensuring all communities are treated fairly." And Sen. Dan Skogen, who represents the Wadena area, said he is happy with how his requests have been received.

The Wadena area and more than 30 southern Minnesota counties must wait on Washington.

"The governor requested the disaster declaration on Oct. 1 as a result of flooding caused by severe storms that began on Sept. 22 in southern Minnesota," Pawlenty's office reported Friday evening. "Preliminary assessments indicate a total of $64.1 million in damage. In order to provide prompt relief to those in need, the governor intends to call a special session shortly after receiving the declaration."

Negotiations have gone on for days among legislative and governor staffers trying to write a bill funding disaster relief that can fly through a few-hour special session. Among items discussed, but not decided, was whether Wadena-area tornado relief should be included.

Pawlenty and legislative leaders originally said the special session would not touch tornado recovery because much of that loss was insured and there was little need to rush money there. Pawlenty and House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said that any tornado-related relief could wait until the 2011 regular legislative session.

But Wadena leaders had a different idea and legislators from the area pushed for aid in the special session.

Skogen, DFL-Hewitt, said his biggest request is $20.5 million for a regional wellness center to replace the community center, and the ice rink it included, and a swimming pool. The center, which would include meeting rooms, could be located at a new high school. All were destroyed in a June 17 tornado that was part of a record tornado outbreak across Minnesota.

Also on the Wadena wish list is up to $3 million to remove debris from the old airport property. The debris was hauled there from damaged buildings, but Skogen said the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency wants it moved.

There also is a need for some money to help the school district replace equipment not covered by insurance, Skogen added.

Once those needs are covered, the senator said, he should not need to return to the state for more money unless federal funds and insurance payments do not cover the damage.

Flooding that touched more than 30 southern Minnesota counties is the reason a special session is planned.

Federal funds are expected to pay for 75 percent of public facility damages due to flooding. A separate program could help individuals, but there is no word whether the federal government will approve that funding.

When legislators convene their special session, besides sending money to repair public facility damages, they are expected to approve paying communities that lose property taxes due to flood damage.

The bill to be considered in the special session also extends property tax deadlines for damaged properties.

When legislators return to St. Paul, it actually will be their second special session of the year. After their regular session ended, they met for 10 more hours before adjourning the morning of May 17 after fixing a $3 billion hole in the state budget.

Only the governor can call a special session, and Republican Pawlenty requires a firm agreement with legislative leaders before he will call back the DFL-controlled Legislature.

Special sessions have followed other recent floods.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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