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Lawmakers look at ways to avoid special sessions

By Don Davis

Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers may have met for the last time in a special session to provide aid to a relatively small disaster.

There appeared to be widespread agreement during the September 9 session that lawmakers next year will look at ways to simplify how disaster relief is granted. They especially questioned spending more than $30,000 to call lawmakers back into session to send out sums like the $4.5 million they approved for June storms and floods that stretched from west-central Minnesota, including Douglas County, to the southeast.

Many legislators have talked about the need to establish a fund available to the administration to have on hand when relatively small disasters occur.

With a smaller request like this year’s (compared to hundreds of millions of dollars needed for northern Minnesota last year), Cohen said that such an arrangement would “make accessing money a little quicker.”

Legislative leaders and Governor Mark Dayton looked into that this year, knowing that the money was available from funds not spent in northern Minnesota a year ago. But the state’s finance agency said that could not happen because the state Constitution requires the Legislature to appropriate all money.

Representative Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said that the nonpartisan House research office laid out ways that disaster relief could have occurred without a special session.

“I don’t know that we need to be here today,” he said from the back of the House chamber awaiting action on the disaster bill.

Minnesota has had 19 major disaster declarations since 2000 and six in the last three years alone. Since 2007, the state has paid all of the state and local costs, 25 percent of total damages eligible for reimbursement under presidential declarations. Federal funds generally pay 75 percent of costs incurred by state and local governments in recovering from a disaster.

Federal money comes, however, only when the state as a whole and specific counties reach specific damage thresholds. As Representative Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said before she cast the lone “no” vote on the disaster bill, that means damage in a small town in a county that did not reach the federal threshold may not be reimbursed even though a similar town with similar damage may see federal funds because the county had more overall damage.

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.