ST. PAUL — This week's special legislative session to approve less than $5 million for storm recovery has some Minnesota lawmakers questioning whether increasingly frequent disaster-relief gatherings are even necessary.
"If all we're doing is matching federal money, particularly at a low figure like $4.5 million, that should not require a special session," said Rep. Gene Pelowski. The Democrat from Winona said he hopes to introduce legislation next year for a permanent fund that state officials could draw from whenever the state needs to match federal disaster relief funds.
The special session that convenes Monday will be the sixth since 1997 called just to approve a disaster relief match. The pace is quickening, too: It's the fourth since 2007.
Special sessions aren't that expensive. Monday's cost for taxpayers is pegged at about $33,000 in mileage reimbursements and per diem payments to lawmakers.
But Pelowski pointed out that they frequently provoke political games by lawmakers looking to spotlight pet issues.
"We've got people talking about the minimum wage, we've got people talking about repealing taxes," Pelowski said. "Special sessions should be narrowly focused and they should be infrequent, but we know that a lot of lawmakers can't help themselves."
While only the governor can call a special session, lawmakers control adjournment. Gov. Mark Dayton and Democratic legislative leaders are limiting the focus of this year's special session to the disaster relief bill, which is likely to be easier with Democrats in full control of state government. But several Republican lawmakers have sought repeal of some of the new sales taxes approved earlier this year.
The idea for a permanent disaster relief account was first floated by Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles. It would likely be funded with leftover money from previous disaster relief allocations.
Dayton, a Democrat, said he supports the idea. He and legislative leaders looked into whether the $4.5 million federal match could be accomplished by temporarily using leftover state funds from previous disasters, but they didn't have the authority.
Dayton said he backs legislation "that will permit the consolidation of unused disaster assistance monies, their transfer between agencies, and a modest disaster reserve fund to be used by the governor," he said. A panel of lawmakers could sign off on the allocations without calling all 201 legislators back to St. Paul, he said.
But Steve Sviggum, a former Republican House speaker who participated in several disaster-relief special sessions, said he had concerns about legislation that would shift spending decisions away from the legislative branch and into the executive.
"You're putting spending on automatic pilot, and that's rarely a good direction to be going," Sviggum said. "We've seen situations like that often lead to unintended consequences."
Sviggum also questioned whether lawmakers would support a move that would likely result in fewer headlines back home about their efforts to help communities rebound from floods, tornadoes and blizzards.
"From a political standpoint, it lets the local legislator rise above the petty partisan politics and take care of their community. Most legislators who sponsor these bills will tell you they got some type of positive bump," he said.
This year's special session is in response to a series of heavy storms starting around June 20 that caused an estimated $18 million in damage in 18 counties, from hundreds of trees torn from the ground in Minneapolis to washed-out township roads and culverts in Faribault County. The state's share of $4.5 million is the smallest ever to prompt a special session: an August 2012 one-day session saw lawmakers approve $167.5 million in response to a flood that devastated Duluth and other parts of northeastern Minnesota, while a 2007 special session in response to southeastern Minnesota flooding produced a $160 million state aid package.
Pelowski said larger state matches like those two would probably still demand a special session. He said he's not yet sure what parameters to set on the size of the proposed relief fund. Pelowski said he plans a meeting Tuesday on the proposal — the day after the latest special session is supposed to end.