Ventura should convene session for flood aid

Both chambers of the state Legislature reached an agreement on emergency disaster relief for the flooded counties in northwestern Minnesota this weekend. The aid package would include $35.4 million in state funding to the communities most affected by the early summer flooding, which spread across a large portion of the region. The leaders of both the House and Senate will submit the proposal to Gov. Jesse Ventura today, who will decide whether to convene a special session. It is important that Ventura quickly agrees to convene a special session, so a further dispute over the package’s funding can be resolved.

The flooding affected the towns of Ada, Mahnomen, Roseau and Warroad as well as other communities. A total of 19 counties were designated as federal disaster areas, which are eligible to receive federal disaster assistance. With a total of 3,000 residents, Rosseau was one of the communities most affected, as 1,800 families were impacted by the flooding in some way, and 50 percent of the town’s housing units experienced some damage.

Ventura had previously agreed to convene a special session as soon as both chambers had agreed on a compromise. Party leaders in both chambers have agreed to confine the session to the bill itself. Under the agreement, a portion of the state’s total contribution will go toward a grant by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA will match in triplicate $8.3 million of the state’s funding. Normally, to secure FEMA matching grants, the state contributes 15 percent of the total, while the local municipal government would contribute 10 percent.

Ventura should approve the agreement because it addresses many of the agricultural and domestic needs that resulted from the flooding. Property taxes would be reduced for businesses, homeowners and farmers who suffered damages up to 50 percent of their properties values. Farmers with crop losses exceeding 50 percent of their typical market value would also receive a total of $6 million, distributed at $4 per acre up to $5,600. The U.S. Farm Service Agency estimates the total losses in the 19 affected counties will total $275 million. Additionally, the aid would provide $3 million in general business assistance, $4 million in housing assistance, $2 million in infrastructure assistance and $1 million to clean fuel spills caused by the flood. The bill would also provide $5 million in local road and bridge repair and $1 million in state road repair.

In addition to the aid provided in this agreement, the area will also be receiving other disaster assistance. Ventura has offered a $500,000 grant to Roseau to assist with flood recovery and protection projects. The area is also likely to be considered for further federal assistance; Tuesday the U.S. Senate will vote on a $5.5 billion disaster relief bill to assist with recovery of the plain’s floods and droughts.

Although it is important the affected communities quickly receive aid, Ventura’s office contends the general reserve fund does not have enough money available to cover the cash portion. Of the $35.4 million total, $13.1 million would be cash directly coming out of the reserve, while the remainder would be in the form of bonds. At the end of this most recent legislative session, the Legislature estimated the reserve at $315 million. However, Ventura’s office contends the reserve is roughly $8 million, according to recently released figures.

Realistically, the value of the reserve fund is likely to be much closer to $315 million than the governor’s $8 million estimate. Even if the value were significantly lower, the state should still expeditiously approve the relief package so the region remains eligible for the matching grant from FEMA. Ventura must understand the necessity of quick action by quickly convening a special session and working with the Legislature to approve the eagerly anticipated assistance.