In recent years, natural disaster relief has seemed immune from the partisan contagion that has infected the State Capitol. But that shield seems about to be put to an election-year test, one that could give stricken communities a case of the jitters.
A clear partisan divide was seen Tuesday as a House-Senate legislative working group heard the Dayton administration’s tally of typical disaster relief measures as applied to this summer's storms. The Legislature’s two Republican money committee chairs complained of “sticker shock” when seeing the $198 million bill for flood and windstorm relief from June 14-21 flooding in 15 counties and three tribal reservations, and July 2-4 windstorms that damaged five counties and one reservation.
“I kept hearing ‘ka-ching! ka-ching!’” said House Ways and Means chair Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville
. She and Senate Finance chair Claire Robling, R-Jordan, said they expected to be asked for a much smaller amount, enough to cover a required FEMA match for public infrastructure repairs and immediate emergencies.
But legislators from the afflicted region – most of them minority DFLers – countered that the sums projected by the administration were in keeping with the state’s recent responses to major natural disasters, and appear skimpy by some measures. Damage from this year’s storms exceeds the blow to southeastern Minnesota’s Bluff Country in September 2007, yet the administration’s first-draft projection for action this year is for about $20 million less, said Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick.
The brewing quarrel might have been averted if legislators had heeded the advice they received last spring from the Office of the Legislative Auditor. Its evaluation of the state’s natural disaster response pointed to weak spots in the state’s otherwise strong statutory framework for disaster relief, enacted in 2008.
Among the auditor’s recommendations:
· Clarify when the state will pay the entire 25 percent match FEMA requires, and when it will expect local governments to split that tab.
· Same goes for Flood Hazard Mitigation Grants, a state/local program for which the state occasionally pays the entire tab.
· Decide what state help should be available when FEMA declines to help. That’s already the case for the July windstorms, and could prove to be the case for the estimated 1,700 homeowners whose dwellings were damaged by the Duluth area floods.
Those are decisions better made when they cannot be cast as discrimination against a recently afflicted part of the state. But in Minnesota, there tends to be relatively little calm between major storms. By the auditor’s count, Minnesota has sustained 32 disasters ranked “severe” in the past 15 years, costing the state $488 million. With more frequent storms in the climatological forecast, it’s time for Minnesota to get disaster relief down pat.