The sharpest debate so far over paying victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse broke out recently as a House panel unanimously backed a compensation fund and sent it on for more hearings.
With survivors listening in the hearing room, several minority Republicans questioned the plan from Rep. Ryan Winkler, a Democrat, and its message to those hurt in tornadoes, floods and other disasters.
“You are opening it up to all kinds of unintended consequences, because there are lots of people who have been affected by lots of tragedies,” said Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano.
Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, drew a distinction between natural disasters and the Aug. 1 bridge failure, which killed 13 and injured 145.
“It wasn’t an act of God, it was a failure of man,” he said. “And we as state representatives or officers of the state ultimately are the ones responsible for the maintenance of infrastructure.”
His bill would create a legal framework to compensate survivors of future disasters, while appropriating money specifically for 35W bridge collapse victims, somewhere between $30 million and $60 million, he said. His bill must pass four more committees before the full House can vote.
A slightly different plan is being considered in the Senate. Winkler and Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, are pushing to make a compromise compensation fund into law by the end of next month, as bridge victims struggle with medical bills, lost wages and other financial problems.
Their legal options are narrowed by the state’s $1 million liability cap and a long wait for federal investigators to determine why the bridge fell.
Emmer failed to amend the bill so the fund would cover only unpaid medical costs. He said payments for broader costs would jump ahead of the legal system before anyone has been held liable for the collapse, and wondered whether victims would lose legal options by taking a settlement.
The bill would require those accepting payments to give up their right to sue the state.
Rep. Laura Brod criticized the response to past disasters, saying it’s been uneven and tinted by politics. She named floods in Browns Valley and tornadoes in Le Sueur County and Rogers.
“What we require is people to come begging to the Legislature,” said Brod, R-New Prague.
Emmer and Winkler worked together on a successful amendment banning lawyers from charging fees for helping bridge victims access a state compensation fund.
The bill’s next stop is in the House Public Safety and Civil Justice Committee today.
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