Walz seeks $30 million to replenish state disaster aid fund

With the threat of spring flooding looming, Gov. Tim Walz asked lawmakers Tuesday to approve $30 million to replenish a state disaster aid fund that was drained by a string of disasters last year.

Walz said an updated flood forecast from the National Weather Service is expected in early March, but there are "flashing yellow lights" already due to the "incredibly wet fall" that left soils saturated in many parts of the state heading into the winter, and the heavy snowpack since then.

"It would be irresponsible not to assume that we’re going to have a pretty wet spring and the potential for flooding as there was last year," the governor said at a news conference.

Rep. Gene Pelowski, of Winona, who created the state’s Disaster Assistance Contingency Account, is sponsoring the proposal and plans to hold a hearing on it Monday. He said he expects to line up a Senate sponsor by Monday.

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"No local unit of government can sustain the amount of work and the amount of resources it takes once these disasters hit," Pelowski said.

Legislation last year to add $10 million to the fund was one of the first bipartisan successes of the 2019 session and one of the first bills that the Democratic governor signed into law. He later approved $20 million more. Walz said his goal is to get the new funds signed into law by April 1.

The state has already committed that full $30 million because of 10 major disasters last year, said Joe Kelly, the state’s director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and the account is already projected to be $2.7 million in the hole.

The state uses the fund to provide the required match when there’s a federal disaster declaration, and to provide state money that local governments match in less serious state disaster emergencies. The money helps local governments with cleanup and repair costs. Pelowski estimated that the fund has helped the Legislature avoid at least a dozen special sessions since it was created in 2014.

The fund is "critical to the resilience of our cities, enabling them to recover quickly" said Doug Berglund, director of emergency management for Washington County.

The National Weather Service last week said current conditions suggest spring flooding across the region is more likely than usual. But the agency held off on saying significant flooding was certain because it depends on what happens over the next several weeks.

Officials at the news conference urged homeowners to consider buying flood insurance soon because it takes 30 days to become effective, and consider whether their homeowner’s insurance includes sufficient protection against water and sewer backups.

Senate Finance Chair Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, issued the following statement Tuesday afternoon:

"I wholeheartedly support adding more funding to the Disaster Contingency Account. One thing Minnesotans are really good at is helping out our neighbors; given the challenges we are expected to face this spring, it’s important we are prepared to give counties and communities the support they will need. This is one of my top priorities, and I am glad the governor is making it a priority as well."