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Browns Valley aid sputters, then advances

ST. PAUL - Browns Valley flood aid hit a political speed bump Thursday, but appears set for final legislative approval as early as today.

The Minnesota House and Senate Thursday passed slightly differing versions of flood relief for the Minnesota community bordering South Dakota that sustained heavy damage in a March flood.

On a 62-0 Thursday vote, senators approved sending $2 million to Browns Valley and allowing the community to dip into another $5.5 million fund to fight future floods. The House followed suit 120-8 later.

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said he would look at the House bill and might recommend fellow senators approve it today.

Also included in the bill are $600,000 for the Twin Cities suburb of Rogers to rebuild after a Sept. 16 tornado and $74,000 for Warroad to make repairs following an Aug. 5 tornado. Both were added while the full House debated the measure.

Roseau also would be eligible to an unspecified additional relief amount after a 2002 flood.

Getting the bill passed wasn't easy. Behind-the-scene negotiations took 12 hours, with House passage coming after 8 p.m.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said he wanted a bill only funding Browns Valley's needs, but Republicans insisted the House Finance Committee include up to $1 million for Rogers residents to recover. They failed to talk committee Democrats into accepting the idea, setting up the year's most heated legislative debate.

Rep. Joyce Peppin, a Republican representing Rogers, walked out of the meeting after a Democratic-Farmer-Laborite lawmaker said Rogers' needs "did not sound like a disaster."

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said Democrats like Marquart have no problem getting money for their districts, but Republicans like Peppin often end up empty handed in the DFL-controlled House.

"I just pray to God that a tornado never hits my district," Garofalo said.

The debate surfaced Thursday because Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Tuesday vetoed a public works bill that included Browns Valley aid. When he announced the veto, the GOP governor asked lawmakers to send him a separate Browns Valley bill.

Marquart said the community has a large elderly population and little ability to pay higher property taxes to fund recovery efforts. About 150 properties in the 643-population town were damaged, he said.

"This is a city with limited means," Marquart said.

Peppin tried, and failed, to get committee members to agree to spend $1 million on Rogers. She also unsuccessfully tried to get $600,000 to build a barrier to keep Interstate 94 sound out of the community after the tornado ripped out a stand of trees that kept the community isolated from traffic noise.

"If we are going to hand out money to people in need, we should be fair," Peppin said.

Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, who formerly represented Browns Valley, criticized Marquart for seeking money for his district, but not supporting Peppin. "I find your words a little bit hollow."

A tentative agreement to include some Rogers money in the bill fell apart during an afternoon Finance Committee meeting. Marquart said he didn't want to slow down Browns Valley aid, so he would not back the Peppin request.

"I don't think the swiftness of the process should affect good public policy," Peppin responded.

Under guidance of House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, a new agreement was reached in time for the Thursday night vote.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.