Legislators, governor approve disaster relief bill
Minnesota legislators made a brief appearance back in St. Paul on Monday to pass nearly $5 million in disaster relief funds for counties hit by severe storms in late June and ice storms last winter. Republican lawmakers also used the short time back in the spotlight to renew calls for the Dayton administration and DFL-controlled Legislature to repeal several tax increases passed earlier this year.
The special session lasted less than four hours and there was little debate over the merits of the bill, which allocated $4.5 million for disaster relief caused by the storms in 18 counties and issued $220,000 in grants to two southwestern counties hit by late-winter ice storms. Minnesota qualified for up to $18 million in disaster relief from the federal government, but the state is required to cover a quarter of that cost. The bill passed unanimously off the Senate floor, and lost only one vote in the House, from DFL Rep. Alice Hausman, who expressed disappointment that Ramsey County in her district did not qualify for aid.
“When we put politics aside and put people first, we do what’s right,” said DFL Rep. Jeanne Poppe, whose southern House district was hit the hardest by the June storms. “We haven’t solved all the problems, but we are taking care of the people in 18 counties, and that’s important.”
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton signed the disaster relief bill shortly after its passage. “When disaster strikes, we are all Minnesotans, we’re not Republicans and Democrats,” he said.
It took weeks for lawmakers to negotiate the terms of the one-day special session, with Republicans pushing for Democrats to add to the agenda a repeal of three business-to-business tax increases passed last session. They include tax hikes on electronic, telecommunications and farm equipment repairs and warehousing and storage services. DFL legislative leaders and Dayton agreed to repeal one of those taxes — a tax increase on farm equipment repairs — but negotiations broke down when Republican leaders declined to take up just one of the controversial sales taxes.
Legislators introduced a total of 47 bills during the short special session, despite the fact that leadership agreed to take up only the disaster relief proposal. Most of the bills were introduced by Republicans seeking to repeal tax increases passed last session. But 10 rural House Democrats introduced a bill to repeal the tax on farm equipment repairs, while several suburban Democrats in the House signed their names to a bill repealing the warehousing tax. In the Senate, just two DFLers — Red Wing Sen. Matt Schmit and Austin Sen. Dan Sparks — authored bills to repeal tax increases.
Tying tax increases to the disaster relief bill, the Republican soundbite of choice for the day evoked Democrats’ “man-made disaster.”
“All of us had our eyes wide open as we were going through the bill,” said Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa. “We knew some of these things, if they were allowed in there, were going to cause great harm. We missed a golden opportunity, and I hope we take the time as session begins to correct some of these problems.”
The special session also served as a stage for several Republicans seeking higher office next fall, including gubernatorial hopefuls Sen. Dave Thompson and Rep. Kurt Zellers, as well as Sen. Julianne Ortman, who is seeking the GOP nomination to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
Ortman said leaving the warehousing tax in place amounted to “failed leadership” from the DFL, while Zellers said farmers were going to take their equipment across state lines to get repairs because of the tax increase.
“I know for a fact that there is a desire to repeal any and all of these taxes,” Thompson added. “The bottom line is the governor, the House and the Senate — the Democrats — had the votes to pass these taxes and sign them into law, and they did, and they have the votes to repeal them, and they won’t.”
Dayton said he asked Republican leadership repeatedly to show how they would pay for the repeal of all three tax increases, which together would cost more than $300 million. “They’ve been absolutely silent on that,” Dayton said. “It’s been like a political pinata, they just keep taking swings at it, and I guess it served their purpose.”
The rules surrounding disaster-related special sessions were also a major part of the discussion, with many lawmakers pushing for changes to the way the state hands out relief in the future. Lawmakers in both chambers introduced a bill to create a special disaster contingency fund. Under current state law, funds can only be appropriated by a vote of the Legislature, a requirement that forces all 201 lawmakers to shuttle back to St. Paul in the case of an off-session natural disaster. The executive branch would have the authority to use the proposed fund without legislative approval.
Other legislators decried the formula to qualify for state and federal funds. Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said rural electric cooperatives cannot qualify for state disaster aid. He’s preparing a bill to address that issue next session. Hausman, a Democrat from St. Paul and the only no vote on the disaster relief bill, said Ramsey County did not qualify for aid because it didn’t hit a $1.7 million damage threshold for relief.
“I was shocked when Ramsey County wasn’t on the list… The city of Maplewood could be wiped off the face of the earth by a tornado, and we wouldn’t qualify,” Hausman said. “Disaster relief isn’t necessarily fair.”