Lawmakers plan to refill empty disaster fund

Published 7:50 pm Monday, March 11, 2019

ST. PAUL — Replenishing a nearly empty disaster fund should be a priority this session ahead of anticipated spring flooding following a particularly snowy Minnesota winter, Republican lawmakers said Monday.

District 54B Rep. Tony Jurgens, R-Cottage Grove, and District 1 Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, had a news conference to highlight a GOP proposal for $40 million to refill the Disaster Assistance Contingency Account, which was drained by floods in Brainerd and Duluth last year. They would add $20 million this fiscal year and another $20 million in the next, which begins July 1.

The lawmakers said the need is urgent because the snowiest winter in recent years has increased the risk of major spring flooding across Minnesota, particularly along the Red, Minnesota, Crow, St. Croix and Mississippi rivers.

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“This funding is too important to be left until the end of session,” Jurgens said. “It may need to be available next month, or May or June, and we don’t want this money getting lost in the shuffle as funding priorities are being decided in omnibus budget bills. Emergency funding should not be tied to other issues.”

But the House Democrat credited with creating the fund, Rep. Gene Pelowski of Winona, who sat in on the news conference, suggested that the need isn’t so urgent. He said the fund is meant primarily to cover disasters that happen between legislative sessions to eliminate the need for special sessions on disaster relief.

If there is a flood disaster this spring, he said, the Legislature could and should directly appropriate any necessary aid while it’s still in session.

Pelowski is the lead author of a bill making its way through House committees that currently contains $10 million to “backfill” the fund for this fiscal year, but said he has an amendment ready to add at least $20 million to cover potential needs going forward.

He said he’s just waiting for an updated budget proposal from Democratic Gov. Tim Walz that he hopes will add $20 million. The governor’s budget proposal currently calls for $10 million this fiscal year, which ends June 30.