Minnesota needs a disaster relief fund

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2013 - 9:10 PM

A not-so-special session of the Minnesota Legislature makes the case for change.

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June 22, 2012: Photo shows the impact of flooding in Duluth on Willow River, Minn.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Today’s special session of the ­Minnesota Legislature isn’t expected to live up to its name. There won’t be much that’s special about it. Convening the recessed Legislature for one day to send taxpayers’ dollars to stricken communities has become Minnesota’s standard response to natural disasters.

This session would benefit from a longer agenda. Lawmakers would do well to take up the repeal of at least two problematic new applications of the sales tax, to farm machinery repairs and third-party warehouse services. Both of those sales taxes carry a high risk of pushing business activity out of Minnesota to other states.

Minority Republican efforts to put those and other tax repealers on the agreed-to agenda were rebuffed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and majority legislators last month. If those GOP efforts continue today, as expected, they likely won’t succeed.

DFLers rightly note that those seeking the tax cuts have not proposed specific remedies for the breach in the biennial budget that their repeal would create. But the obligation to correct flawed tax policy rests with the party in power. Correcting the 2013 sales tax mistakes ought to be a priority for Dayton and the 2014 Legislature’s majorities.

What remains for today is Dayton’s call for legislative action to provide the requisite 25 percent state-plus-local match for federal aid to 18 counties — including Hennepin — where storms in late June damaged public infrastructure. The proposed legislation, released Friday, calls for a $4.7 million appropriation, funded with reductions in several state agency budgets.

That sum is small by state government lights. It’s got Dayton and key legislators talking about ways to make modest sums available in the future without the expense, unpredictability and inevitable political gamesmanship of a $32,000-a-day special session.

We hope that thinking bears fruit. Lawmakers received good advice on the matter last year from the Office of the Legislative Auditor. It recommended the creation of a relief fund that could be tapped quickly after a natural disaster without resorting to a special session.

It also called on legislators to set clearer criteria for spending from such a fund, and for state disaster assistance in general. Guidelines should define the state’s obligation both when a disaster does not qualify for federal assistance and when it does. They should clarify the circumstances under which the state should pay the federally required 10 percent local match as well as its own 15 percent match.

Only once in the last six years — after floods in June 2008 — have local governments paid their own match after a federal disaster declaration was made. But before 2007, local governments frequently were expected to put up their own matching funds. The reason for the change has never been spelled out.

Many other states have special funds dedicated for disaster relief that can be tapped without legislative action, the auditor’s report noted. Among 12 Midwestern states surveyed, Minnesota is one of only three that lack that mechanism for paying for storm cleanup.

But Minnesota lawmakers shouldn’t simply copy other states in this regard. This state is known in the region as among the most effective in reviving communities after tornadoes and floods. The disaster response framework set in statute in 2008 has served Minnesota well. It ought not be discarded — though it can be improved by allowing more flexibility in transferring funds among the 13 state agencies that share relief responsibilities.

The creation of a disaster relief fund ought not become an excuse for lawmakers to become less responsive to major calamities. People in Rushford, Wadena and Duluth can attest that when a big portion of a town is splintered by a tornado or inundated by a torrent, the extra measure of state assistance that comes by way of legislation tailored to each unique circumstance can make a huge difference.

If today’s one-day lawmaking exercise is indeed that, the chief sponsor of the 2008 disaster framework, DFL Rep. Gene Pelowski of Winona, said he will meet Tuesday with key stakeholders to consider revisions. Among them will be a dedicated relief fund that could be tapped by the governor in consultation with legislative leaders between regular sessions. Pelowski said last week that he likes the legislative auditor’s ideas. Dayton said he does, too.

Today’s special session won’t be momentous. But at least it affords an opportunity for lawmakers to begin discussing improvements in Minnesota’s already strong response to disaster relief.

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A Star Tribune editorial. Follow the editorial board on Twitter | FacebookPinterest | Google+

 

  • SPECIAL SESSIONS


    The Minnesota Legislature has met in 48 special sessions since becoming a state in 1858. The first, in September 1862, was in response to the U.S.-Dakota War in the Minnesota River valley. Five of the last dozen special sessions were called to provide aid to communities stricken by natural disasters.


    Source: -Legislative Reference Library.

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