Special session flood relief package beginning to take shape

Last week, Minnesotans got a first look at the flood relief package Governor Mark Dayton will be asking legislators to consider during an upcoming special legislative session. I’ve been working for weeks on individual pieces of the package with administration officials, but this was the first time anyone saw the entire package presented by the Administration.

In general, I’m pleased with what the Governor has offered. It’s in line with the state assistance we’ve seen in previous disasters, and it’s a package Minnesotans can be proud of. In total, it proposes to invest $187 million to help rebuild damaged public infrastructure and, importantly, support individual homeowners and local businesses in their recovery efforts. The $187 million mostly is funded through a slight decrease in the state’s rainy day budget account and bond sales. The total is comparable to what the state has provided to other disaster victims – in 2007, legislators approved a $148 million relief package to help residents in seven Southeast Minnesota counties clean up after devastating floods.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency asks the state to match 25 percent of the federal funds supplied to disaster efforts. In this case, it’s estimated Minnesota’s match will be about $27 million. However, FEMA dollars only pay for very specific projects. For instance, the federal funds may help replace a washed-out culvert on one section of road, but FEMA will not fund the necessary replacement of the culvert pipes that lead up to the washed-out portion — something that usually has to happen in order to bring the entire system up to a functioning level. That’s why the Governor’s package is much larger than the FEMA-required $27 million; there simply are a lot of needs that won’t be covered by federal assistance.

Most residents are aware that FEMA initially denied Individual Assistance to flood victims and that the Governor appealed that decision. Last week, FEMA officially turned down that appeal. This leaves the state to offer the primary assistance to individuals. Insurance coverage and federal assistance, such as low-interest Small Business Administration loans must be exhausted before individuals will be able to seek any state assistance. But, for those that are denied SBA loans or other coverage, the Governor’s package proposes low-interest, forgivable loans through the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. The Quick Start program, as it’s called, has traditionally provided average loans of $25,000 to individual homeowners with no other funding source. The low-interest loans are forgivable if a person stays in the home for 10 years, and they are intended to help bring homes back up to livable standards by paying for the replacement of furnaces, water heaters, electrical services and other basic necessities.

The Governor’s proposal also includes important funding for highway and transportation projects that fall outside the FEMA-approved projects. Again, FEMA may pay for a very specific section of road to be repaired, but the federal funds will not include other updates needed to make the roads passable again. Many roads, such as trunk highways, also automatically are not eligible for FEMA funds.

In addition, there’s an important case-management section in the Governor’s plan. It directs the MHFA to support long-term recovery committees that are being built locally. This function will help families navigate through the long and difficult recovery process and make sure they are receiving the most appropriate and beneficial supports available to them. This is something Wadena officials successfully implemented in response to the 2010 tornado, and which they recommended we make sure to include.

In the public meeting on Aug. 7, some Republican legislators expressed sticker shock at the $187 million total in this bill. Many were expecting to see a proposal that provided the FEMA match and not much more, which is why the public meeting was important — it allowed opportunity to discuss the other gaps that need to be covered and compare this bill to previous disaster assistance. I’m hopeful that once my colleagues have had time to see this package is in line with what the state has done for other disaster-stricken areas of the state, they will come together and help pass a package similar to the Governor’s proposal during the special session, which still is tentatively set for Aug. 24.

In the meantime, if you have any information you’d like to share, or if you simply have questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to contact me at sen.tony.lourey@senate.mn; 651-296-0293; or at 100 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55155.

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Senator Tony Lourey
Tony Lourey represents District 11, which includes portions of Carlton, Kanabec, Pine and St. Louis counties in the northeastern part of the state.

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