Dayton, lawmakers agree on flood aid special sessionby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Governor Dayton says he wants to call a one-day special session in late August to deliver disaster assistance to northeastern Minnesota and other communities. Dayton made the announcement Wednesday afternoon, after meeting privately with legislative leaders.
Dayton and lawmakers have been working quickly to deliver state and federal aid to communities in northeastern Minnesota that experienced tens of millions of dollars in damage due to flooding in late June. They reached general agreement on when to hold a special session.
But still undecided are the amount of that aid and where it will be targeted. State and local officials are still working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to determine the scope of the disaster, according to Dayton. He estimates the damage at roughly $108 million for public infrastructure costs, but it could rise to $150 million.
"On the one hand, we feel that urgency," said Dayton. "On the other, we need to know, as close as we can, the totality of what is needed and for what purposes, so the session can come in and take care of everything in that session in one day."
President Obama signed a disaster declaration last week, which means the federal government will pay for 75 percent of the funds to help the communities rebuild. Dayton said he expects the state to pick up the rest of the tab.
The state is also applying for federal assistance for individuals who suffered property damage, Dayton said. That process could delay the special session into early September.
Disaster assistance for the cities of Wadena and Rushford, as well as Beltrami and Aitkin counties, could also be included in the special session.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem said he expects lawmakers to act quickly to pass the aid when they meet.
"While we don't necessarily look forward to these from the standpoint of the reasons that we do special sessions, I think we all feel that there's certainly a duty and responsibility to come together," said Senjem.
Such bipartisan cooperation is typical for special sessions that focus on disaster assistance. But Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, said he's inclined to force an issue that could cause some friction among lawmakers. Nienow said he wants the Legislature to amend the titles to two constitutional amendment questions that will appear on the November ballot.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat, changed the wording of the titles of a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage, and a second amendment that would require voters to show photo identification at the polls.
Nienow and other Republicans are critical of that action. Nienow said Ritchie overstepped his authority and he wants the Legislature to step in.
"This is about what is the title going to be, and this is about the Legislature protecting its constitutional authority," said Nienow. "The Legislature should not simply cede that to the Secretary of State, allowing him to misuse his statutory authority to supercede the constitutional authority which we have."
Ritchie told MPR News that he believes naming ballot titles falls under his purview, not the Legislature's. Several groups are suing to stop Ritchie from changing the titles.
But Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers is not eager to introduce that politically charged issue into a special session focused on disaster aid.
"To bring this issue into that would be a disservice to those people that have had their lives completely disrupted, completely upended and have no idea where they're going to go, what they're going to do and how they're going to provide for themselves. I don't think that that would be appropriate," said Zellers.
Gov. Dayton said he's also working to determine whether the state can do anything to help the Verso Paper Mill in Sartell rebuild, after it was destroyed by a fire in May. Dayton said "it's up in the air" as to whether any assistance can be ready by the special session.
- All Things Considered, 07/11/2012, 5:17 p.m.