Gov. Mark Dayton has signed a bill that provides more than $4.5 million in disaster assistance for areas of Minnesota hit by severe weather earlier this summer.
The DFL-controlled Legislature passed the bill in a special session earlier today in which there were few complaints about the money for storm relief. Only one lawmaker voted against it.
But Republicans spent most of the day criticizing Democrats for not repealing new tax increases. The level of GOP discontent was such that anyone tuning into the special session floor debates might have thought the legislation under consideration was a tax bill.
Numerous Republicans used the disaster recovery measure as the starting point for remarks about the need to repeal the business-to-business sales taxes that Democrats passed in the 2013 regular session. Even lawmakers from the areas set to receive the aid stuck to the GOP tax theme.
State Sen. David Brown, R-Becker, characterized the new taxes on business equipment repairs, telecommunication equipment purchases and warehousing services as another kind of disaster.
“Some would argue that these storms are caused by man-made climate change,” Becker said. “But not all agree on this theory. However, there is one thing I think we can all agree on is that Minnesota is being hit by manmade tax change, and that is proving to be a disaster to for all Minnesota counties.”
Republicans also made their point by introducing dozens of special session bills to repeal the taxes. But the agreement Dayton and legislative leaders signed in advance ruled out action on anything beyond disaster relief.
State Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, claimed the new taxes are driving businesses out of the state. He called on Democrats to reverse the new taxes as soon as possible.
“Admit there’s an overreach, govern, but don’t hide,” Hall said. “Minnesotans are leaving Minnesota and we need to bring them back.”
In the House, only a few Republicans stood to complain, but the message of those who did was the same.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, said the special session was a missed opportunity for majority Democrats to correct some of their tax mistakes.
“If Minnesota loses one employer or one job because you failed and delayed in repealing your mistakes, it’s one too many,” said Daudt, R-Crown. “Minnesota’s economy and hardworking Minnesota families can’t afford to pay for your mistakes.”
Democrats in both chambers mostly ignored the tax question. One exception was House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, who scolded Republicans for proposing tax repeals without offering a way to pay for them.
“That is the history of the last decade: short-term solutions without a real way to pay for it,” said Murphy, DFL-St. Paul. “And as our kids are going back to school, that’s not the kind of math that they need to learn. That’s not the kind of math they’re going to learn in our schools. If you want to repeal a tax, you’ve got to pay for it.”
Dayton and DFL leaders have said they’d be willing to revisit some of the tax issues during the 2014 regular session. But Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook said that will depend on what the state’s financial picture looks like next year.
“People need to remember, the first $400 million that we have is committed to pay back the school shift that the Republicans did when they had control of the Legislature,” said Bakk, DFL-Cook. “We still owe our K-12 schools $400 million.”
The disaster aid bill passed unanimously in the Senate. State Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul was the only one in the House to vote against it. She said it should have included money for her city.
The bill pays for the state’s 25 percent share of the federal disaster aid going to 18 counties that were hit hard by storms in late June. A federal disaster declaration this summer included 18 Minnesota counties — Benton, Big Stone, Douglas, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Grant, Hennepin, Houston, McLeod, Morrison, Pope, Sibley, Stearns, Stevens, Swift, Traverse and Wilkin.
State Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-of Austin, said the damage in those areas totaled $18 million.
“Each of the 18 counties reached the FEMA threshold. But the hardest hit was Houston County, which had damages of $6.5 million,” said Poppe, the bill’s chief author. “That’s for a county that has roughly 19,000 residents. So, the per capita loss is $339.55 per person.”
The bill also sends some money Nobles and Rock counties in southwestern Minnesota, damaged by ice storms earlier this year.
Before lawmakers went home, members of the Senate Rules Committee approved the latest legal bill related to the wrongful termination lawsuit by former Republican staffer Michael Brodkorb. The $91,000 bill put the running total of the Senate’s defense at $319,000. The case is scheduled to go to trial next July.