Flood relief for northern Minn. is expected in special session

by Libby George

If all goes as planned, legislators and Gov. Jesse Ventura will have allocated flood relief funding for northern Minnesota as early as 1 p.m. Thursday.

At noon, legislators will meet for a special session, primarily to approve a $32.4 million proposal put together by House Speaker Steve Sviggum and Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe.

“It should be very quick and precise,” Ventura said Wednesday after putting the final touches on the plan with Sviggum, Moe and other legislators.

Under the current proposal, $26 million of the $32 million would be borrowed, with more than $11 million taken from a highway fund.

The funding would go to 19 communities hit by heavy rains and flooding in June, including Roseau, Ada, Warroad and Mahnomen.

Ventura was initially reluctant to call a special session, saying the state had already used up the reserves legislative leaders had counted on for $13.1 million of the flood aid package, but finally called a session last Thursday when the proposal was reached.

Although Ventura told reporters he would prefer if the session dealt exclusively with flood relief, he said two other issues are likely to be addressed, as there appears to be a “complete consensus.”

House and senate leaders have also expressed interest in restoring a charitable giving deduction to thousands of wealthy Minnesotans who are subject to the alternative minimum tax which was revoked by the Minnesota Supreme Court in August.

Moe said the tax forms will be printed soon, and if the issue is not addressed before the next legislative session, they will be printed according to the judicial decision.

The other issue likely to be addressed is clarifying tax laws to ensure that the type of gravel used in construction remains exempt from sales tax.

An interpretation of a bill passed in the last session by the state Revenue Department would impose the tax on gravel against lawmakers’ intentions.

Ventura said he views other issues as off-limits, but once he calls lawmakers back, they can legally deal with as many issues as they wish until they adjourn themselves.

However, Moe and other leaders have said they expect the process to be quick and efficient.

“The senate is made up of 67 unique individuals,” Moe said. “I expect there will be some comments, but I don’t think it will get shrill or partisan.”

Moe said it would be difficult for lawmakers to push controversial issues such as a stadium bill or light rail transit funding because it would take a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to override a gubernatorial veto.

“I think everybody knows we’re there to take care of the flooding problems, and any attempt to get too cute will backfire,” Moe said.

Special legislative sessions are generally called for disaster or emergency relief, but there have been recent cases in which a session is called for other purposes.

A session was called in 1997 to work on a stadium bill, and in 2001, a session was called when the Legislature failed to pass a budget during the regular session.

In the past decade, special sessions have been called approximately every other year.

According to legislators, the standard model for these sessions is to have a

prearranged agreement, such as the current package for flood relief, and legislators simply convene and approve the plan in one day.

Regardless of past reluctance, Ventura said he is now optimistic and fully confident the special session will resolve the relief funding problem, and Moe said it must be taken care of immediately.

“Now’s the time to send financial aid to that area, so folks know that we want them to stay in that area,” Moe said.