Lawmakers plan to refill empty disaster fund ahead of floods

ST. PAUL (AP) — Lawmakers are pushing to replenish an empty disaster fund ahead of anticipated spring flooding.

Rep. Tony Jurgens of Cottage Grove and Sen. Mark Johnson of East Grand Forks held a news conference Monday to highlight a Republican proposal for $40 million to refill the depleted fund. They would add $20 million this fiscal year and another $20 million in the next.

But the House Democrat who created the fund, Rep. Gene Pelowski of Winona, says it’s meant for disasters between legislative sessions. If there is serious flooding this spring, he says, the Legislature would approve aid while it’s still in session.

Pelowski is author of a House bill that contains $10 million but he’s preparing to add more.

Heavy snow has increased the risk of major flooding across Minnesota.

“The contingency account was designed to help provide relief dollars on the fly, but that only works if there is money available to appropriate,” said Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent. “Flooding events in Brainerd and Duluth last year drained $11 million from the account and now it’s time to restore the funds ahead of similar episodes that could occur this year.”

Gov. Tim Walz and House Democrats have proposed putting $10 million into the account for 2019, but Swedzinski said that amount would be insufficient based on last year’s use and this year’s flood predictions.

“A year ago, we saw how quickly this funding can be depleted and the $10 million others are proposing simply won’t cut it,” Swedzinski said. “This issue is too important to wait until the end of session in late May, when any flooding already is likely to have occurred and we run the risk of these funds becoming subject to political gamesmanship. The urgency is here, so let’s take care of it now. It would be irresponsible to ignore the warnings and let ourselves be unprepared.”

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, in the same ballpark as House Republicans propose.