ST. PAUL — As the spring thaw approaches, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz is urging legislators to replenish the state's natural disaster fund to prepare for the worst.
At a Tuesday, Feb. 18, news conference, Walz proposed the state allocate $30 million to its Disaster Assistance Contingency Account. The fund sets aside state dollars for local governments in the case of a natural disaster, which can be made available more quickly than federal assistance — or when an event doesn't qualify for federal assistance at all.
Another $30 million was deposited into the fund last year, but after a historically wet 2019, the fund has already run dry.
According to Joe Kelly, state director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, 10 disasters were declared in Minnesota in 2019. Two received presidential disaster declarations and federal assistance, but Kelly said eight more events were "what you could carelessly call smaller events." They did not qualify for federal help, but received state disaster declarations and aid.
"Knowing that that money is there and they can count on it does a lot to help local communities — and I'm talking counties, townships, cities, tribal governments — build resilience so they can get through an event because they know they can count on that money," Kelly said.
Walz's proposal also comes after the state learned in January that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) underestimated the damage done in the state due to last year's weather events. FEMA's preliminary assessment estimated $40 million in damages. Now, the actual damages are projected to be nearly double original estimates, at $76 million.
For presidential disasters, the feds foot 75% of the bill, while the state of Minnesota pays 25%. After last year's mix-up, Minnesota needs to pay another $9 million to account for its share of the presidential disasters — draining the fund's remaining dollars.
Walz proposed the $30 million come from the state's projected budget surplus. Having the money up-front means the state won't have to call a special session to approve disaster funds, therefore getting the dollars to needy local governments as quickly as possible.
"Good governance should be proactive," Walz said at Tuesday's news conference. "Not waiting until after this happens, not getting into a special session, not holding up the ability of counties to be able to recover."
State Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, backed Walz's proposals in a Tuesday written statement, calling it a "top priority."
"One thing Minnesotans are really good at is helping out our neighbors," she said. "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."