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Viewpoint: Being prepared at the Legislature for inevitable disaster relief

Tony Jurgens

By Tony Jurgens, House District 54B

Anyone that ever had a child in the Scouting program remembers the motto: be prepared. It should be the motto for the state Legislature as well.

Unless you've been hibernating, you understand we received record-setting snowfall for the month of February. Snowbanks are now so tall on the corners of streets that in some cases you can't see oncoming traffic.

Very soon, that snow is going to turn to water — and lots of it.

You can't turn on the news these days without hearing report of future flooding concerns, as the weather experts are predicting major flooding throughout Minnesota in the coming weeks. With the St. Croix River and the Mississippi River bordering our communities, we are definitely going to notice the rising waters.

Days ago, flood preparations began in Hastings. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has 20,000 sandbags ready to fill at the lock and dam, just in case they're needed. Much like a good Scout — the Corps is prepared.

Now I want to make the state of Minnesota is prepared.

Minnesota's Disaster Assistance Contingency Account — created to allocate funds to communities impacted by natural disasters, sits empty. To rectify this problem, I am authoring legislation that will replenish this needed funding so cities damaged by floodwaters will be able to immediately begin recovery efforts.

The account is now in the red after Minnesota responded with $11 million in relief to flooding events in Brainerd and Duluth last year — a year where significant spring flooding was not projected. Gov. Tim Walz and other lawmakers have proposed putting $10 million into the account for 2019, but that amount would be woefully inadequate based on last year's use and this year's flood predictions. Let's also not forget this account is used to help the state pay for damage caused by other natural disasters as well, such as tornadoes, straight line winds, drought and torrential rainfall. This is why I believe a significant funding infusion is critical.

My bill would transfer $20 million in fiscal year 2019 and another $20 million in fiscal year 2020 to this account from our $1 billion general fund surplus. It's not unusual for this account to contain more than $10 million. Since its creation in fiscal year 2014, the account held $17.466 million in fiscal year 2015 and $20.4 million in fiscal year 2016.

Putting sufficient, stable funding in this account is imperative for disaster response preparedness, otherwise lawmakers will continue rushing to appropriate money during session by declaring urgencies.

It's worth noting that this account was created to allow state money to be allocated for disaster relief without calling the Legislature into a special session to appropriate funds. This was a sound move. That said, our non-partisan House research staff points out that money in this account is available to our governor 365 days a year should an emergency be declared, regardless if lawmakers are in session. This was also wise.

As many who have followed politics in this state over the years already know, most issues of significance aren't solved at the state Capitol until the final days of session. We don't want a serious disaster event competing with other end-of-session needs, and we don't want our flood victims to potentially become an unintended pawn in end-of-session budget negotiations.

Sure, we could wait for the flooding to hit over the next few weeks, assess the damage and come up with a total, hold committee hearings in the House and Senate, listen as lawmakers grandstand during debate, take floor votes, and eventually send a bill to Walz to sign — if all of that can happen before the session ends.

Or we could pass a bill that puts disaster relief money into Minnesota's Disaster Assistance Contingency Account and allow Walz to allocate the amount needed after he declares an emergency. By ensuring the account has funds available, the state and federal governments could immediately begin engaging with local communities without having to wait on legislative action.

To me, it's just common sense to properly fund this account now. We want the state of Minnesota to appropriately respond to communities struggling with flood waters — and any other natural disaster — whether lawmakers are in session or adjourned. Let's be prepared.