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Officials pledge cooperation for NE Minnesota; Bemidji area help still up in the air

Gov. Mark Dayton said on Wednesday that a special legislative session, probably in late August, will be only about disaster relief. With him is House Speaker Kurt Zellers. DON DAVIS | BEMIDJI PIONEER

ST. PAUL - Minnesota leaders promise to work together toward an anticipated late-August special legislative session to help communities hit by June storms.

"We are going to come through for those who have been affected by this," Gov. Mark Dayton said after an hour-long Wednesday meeting with legislative leaders, but details must be worked out and that cannot happen until the state knows how much federal money to expect.

Although votes in the full Legislature are needed to make it official, the leaders agreed that the state should pick up local government costs related to a June 20 flood in Duluth and elsewhere in northeastern Minnesota and for storms that passed through Goodhue, Dakota and nearby counties south of the Twin Cities.

President Barack Obama last week declared counties affected by the June storm disaster areas, meaning 75 percent of local government costs would be paid by Washington. Wednesday's agreement means the state would pay the other 25 percent if the full Legislature approves.

However, just how expensive that will be remains to be determined. The state's application for federal aid listed public facility damage, such as roads, sewers and public buildings, at $108 million. Dayton on Wednesday said that figure could rise to $150 million.

Dayton said he expects the state to submit a request next week seeking federal help for individuals and businesses.

While Dayton said the legislative session may consider helping individuals, Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he would recommend that people affected by the flood and wind storms not expect state aid. He said the Legislature has not done that in the past.

State and federal officials this week are assessing private property damage.

Dayton said the average federal payment to Minnesotans in recent disasters has been $1,400, far below what was needed.

Still to be decided is whether past disasters, such as replacing public facilities destroyed in a 2010 Wadena tornado, could be part of the special session.

Also up in the air is whether last week's severe storms across much of northern Minnesota will be part of a disaster-relief plan. Dayton and Bakk said the storm probably did not cause enough damage to receive federal aid, but state officials are working with local governments to determine whether state help is needed.

Bakk said some of the wind damage should be covered by insurance, but the flood that hit Duluth and other northeast Minnesota communities on June 20 mostly affected people who did not have flood insurance.

While some lawmakers have talked about expanding a special session to include other subjects, such as dealing with a controversy about constitutional amendment titles, leaders said injecting politics into disaster-relief efforts is not acceptable.

"We all get in this sandbox and we punch pretty hard and they punch back and elbows are pretty sharp," House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove said. "To bring this issue into that, I think, would be a disservice to those people that have had their lives completely disrupted, completely upended and who have no idea where they are going to go, what they are going to do, how they are going to provide for themselves. I do not think that would be appropriate."

Zellers said as the four legislative leaders flew over the Duluth area after the flood, it became apparent "it is a non-partisan path. ... It didn't care if you were a Democrat or a Republican."

And while Minnesota politicians have fought hard the past couple of years, the speaker was insistent that all of those arguments be set aside for disaster relief, and that lawmakers not worry about the political calendar, and approaching election, when dealing with it.

Dayton said the goal is for a one-day legislative session in the last two weeks of August. However, state officials must know more about how much aid to expect from the federal government before making final decisions on state spending.

Most of the money would come from the state budget reserve, Dayton said. Some funds might be borrowed.

The governor and legislative leaders said they expect details of a disaster package to be worked out before the governor calls the special session.

Bakk told Capitol reporters that during the clean-up, his area of the state has seen "a remarkable volunteer effort" by Minnesotans and Wisconsinites.