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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published September 15 2013

Minnesota political notebook: Lawmakers look to avoid special sessions

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 last week’s 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 to the southeast.

“I don’t expect that this special session is the end of the conversation,” Senate Finance Chairman Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said.

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 Gov. 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.

Minnesota has had 19 major disaster declarations since 2000 and six in the past 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 Rep. 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.

‘Better, not cheaper’

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said that Minnesotans should not expect lower taxes than in surrounding states.

“We are never going to compete with North Dakota on taxes,” Bakk said in answer to Republicans who complained that the recent special legislative session did not overturn a series of tax increases.

Bakk said Minnesota needs to be “better than they are” and does that in providing a better educated workforce.

Republicans regularly complain about Minnesota’s higher taxes, often saying North Dakota and South Dakota are states that can steal businesses.

Revenue goes down

Minnesota’s revenue slipped in August.

Revenue was $26 million, 2 percent lower than expected, in large part because state computers were down for a day, resulting in some state revenue being counted in September rather than August.

Sales taxes were up 30 percent from expectations, with other revenues lower.

A more complete report will be available in a month and will take into the account the computer down time.

Farmers use conservation plan

Minnesota farmers are the biggest benefactors of the country’s most significant conservation program.

A Land Stewardship Project analysis shows that since 2009, the Conservation Stewardship Program paid Minnesota farmers $280 million.

“Conservation on working land is an area we really need to focus on in agriculture and the strong demand we are seeing for CSP is good for the land and our rural communities and verifies that Minnesota farmers recognize there is room for NRCS conservation programs on their farms,” said Don Baloun, Minnesota conservationist for the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The stewardship project reports that farmers say they are using the program to protect water, soil and wildlife habitat “using everything from diverse crop rotations and rotational grazing to wildlife-friendly implements and more targeted use of chemicals.”