TOPEKA — With standing ovations for one of their members who lost his home in the Greensburg tornado, state lawmakers approved a $32 million relief package to help the town get back on its feet.
The bill authorizes the State Finance Council to transfer as much as $25 million to the state emergency fund to pay for recovery.
The bill includes as much as $5 million in direct grants and $2 million in sales tax exemptions to help businesses.
Both houses also passed a companion resolution extending a disaster declaration for Kiowa County until Oct. 31.
The declaration gives the governor broad powers to waive regulations and issue orders to agencies involved in recovery.
Hundreds of Greensburg homes and businesses -- including House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney's house -- were flattened in the May 4 tornado.
McKinney, a Democrat, got two standing ovations.
The first came when he led the House in prayer to open the session; the second came at the end of the day when he thanked his colleagues for moving quickly to support his community.
In an interview, McKinney said the tornado shattered the ability of local government to respond. "They have no tax base left."
However, he said many in the community recognize they have an opportunity to start over.
"We get the chance to build a community from scratch and we're determined to do it. As the rubble is being cleared away, more and more people are seeing this opportunity."
Senate Democrats said the relief bill will encourage businesses to stay in Greensburg, instead of moving to other communities where they could receive state and local aid for starting a new business.
"We have a whole lot of incentives for them to move their business to Pratt instead of rebuilding in Greensburg," said Sen. Janis Lee, D-Kensington. The bill passed Tuesday "gives them at least as much incentive for rebuilding in the same place."
Lawmakers said they expect that much of the aid to Greensburg will be reimbursed by the federal government, but passing the state measures will allow it to be used quickly.
The business relief portion of the package will:
Allow businesses to get a state grant for as much as 10 percent of the money they spend on replacing buildings and equipment.
Give grants of as much as $3,500 for each job an employer restores.
Exempt businesses from paying sales tax on materials and equipment they buy.
The grant portion of the aid is capped at $5 million. There is no limit on the sales tax exemption, which is estimated to cost the state about $2 million.
The bill was carried on the Senate floor by Sen. Ruth Teichman, R-Stafford, who represents Greensburg and neighboring counties also damaged by the storm.
She said of the 10 counties she represents, five suffered storm damage.
While there was some talk in the Republican caucus of broadening the bill to assist other areas, Teichman said she thinks the focus needed to stay on Greensburg.
"You just cannot believe, I know you've all seen pictures of how disastrous this was, but until you've been there individually and seen it firsthand, you probably don't know."
The bill and the resolution passed both houses unanimously with several members absent.
Tuesday's session was originally scheduled as just a ceremonial final adjournment of the Legislature for the year.
The votes in the House were 114-0 with 11 absences. In the Senate, it was 34-0 with six absent.