Lawmakers consider flood relief bonding

As rising waters threaten nearly every part of Minnesota, state lawmakers on Wednesday looked at spending tens of millions of dollars in state-issued bonds to help pay for local projects to control floods and prevent damage to homes, infrastructure and crops.

The Republicans who control the Legislature have been reluctant to support borrowing for construction projects, saying the state can ill afford the debt it would accrue. That’s despite pleas from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, who has proposed borrowing $1 billion to help build civic centers, sports facilities, college labs and other projects, saying it would create up to 28,000 jobs.

But flood relief projects are likely to get an exception from Republicans.

“There’s an added level of urgency there,” said Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, chairman of the House Capital Investment Committee.

The urgency of such a measure was underscored by detours put in place to avoid two major Minnesota River crossings in the Twin Cities area.

State officials closed Highway 101 connecting Shakopee and Chanhassen. The crossing carries about 20,000 cars daily. Highway 41 connecting Jordan and Chaska also was closed. About 14,000 vehicles use the crossing each day.

Officials decided to activate the State Emergency Operations Center in response to potential flooding. The Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management is set to open the center at 8 a.m. Thursday. In addition to news releases and advisories, the joint information center also will post updates on Facebook and Twitter about flood cleanup and recovery.

Long list of projects

Howes’ committee and its Senate counterpart held separate hearings Wednesday on a long list of city, township and watershed district flood relief projects. A House bill on the matter calls for $55 million in bonding for flood relief, while its Senate counterpart contains $28 million; Howes said he believed the final figure would probably be between the two, and said he would likely wait a few weeks to see the extent of this spring’s flooding before deciding how much to spend .

Mayors and other officials touted the projects as necessary to preserve their communities and protect local economies.

“The $55 million in this bill is, we believe, an absolute minimum to address the significant flood needs of the state,” said Ron Harnack, project coordinator for the Red River Watershed Management Board. He said that spending at that level this year, and another financial commitment of about the same size in next year’s bonding bill, would be enough to ensure that every community in the Red River Valley is protected against at least a 100-year flood.

Several members of the House Capital Investment Committee questioned testimony from some local officials that the flood projects would help ensure more stable populations in affected communities. Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, suggested that’s not so different from many worthwhile local projects that aren’t so likely to get state bonding support this year.

“It sounded as though you were saying this will enable you to keep population in your county,” Hausman said. “I think that would be an argument for your county. I don’t know it would be an argument for the rest of the state, the rest of the taxpayers.”

But Kevin Ruud, administrator of the Wild Rice Watershed District, said in response that failing to help protect flood-battered property owners could indeed result in their moving to other states.