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.