A Senate-House conference committee begins to weigh competing plans for victim compensation.
Among the 183 people who were on the Interstate 35W bridge when it collapsed, Linda Paul is a victim with a difference.
At a hearing Wednesday at the State Capitol, Paul described her injuries and her decision just last week to seek counseling to deal with the aftermath -- but then said she favored legislation that would cap the amount of money victims can receive from the state.
"This put me at odds with other bridge survivors. Why, they ask, would you support a bill that places a $400,000 cap on individual compensation?" said Paul, who acknowledged that many of her medical bills have so far been covered by insurance. The reason, she said, was simple: State law now caps such compensation, and "society has tended toward finding ways to ignore laws that inconvenience" people.
Paul's testimony was the most surprising development as a House-Senate conference committee began debate on two diverse proposals to compensate victims of the Aug. 1 bridge tragedy. The Senate version, which passed unanimously two weeks ago, would extend a $400,000 individual cap already in state law to the bridge victims and provides $26.5 million overall for them. The House plan, also adopted by a large margin, does not have individual caps and authorizes a total of $39.3 million.
In a letter to the committee, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he favored the Senate plan but acknowledged that the $400,000 limit may not fully compensate victims. "However, I am concerned that settling claims without regard to the individual tort caps creates a fundamental inequity" between victims of the bridge collapse and those "injured in other situations."
Pawlenty had earlier indicated he might endorse higher payments in the most severe cases. Brian McClung, Pawlenty's spokesman, said Wednesday that the governor "believes the bill should respect the $400,000 cap to the extent possible" but said a compromise "might include alternative approaches."
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, the chief Senate author of the bridge compensation bill, said Pawlenty's letter backed his plan. He also said that, in light of the Senate's unanimous vote, "I don't see how I can go back to the Senate without a cap."
Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, the chief author of the House version, said Wednesday's first meeting of the conference committee made progress, but did not settle anything. "There can be no perfect response from the Minnesota Legislature," he said.
A Senate analysis estimates that it would cost $10 million to settle the 25 most severe cases -- 13 deaths and 12 victims with the most catastrophic injuries -- under the plan that imposes a $400,000 cap. Settling cases for 28 others known to have severe injuries, the study said, would cost another $7.2 million.
Jennifer Holmes, whose husband, Patrick, died in the collapse, testified against imposing a cap. As a teacher, she said, she may have to take time off without pay to care for her children. "Those hurt the most should not be hurt further by this," she said. "What would you want the state to do if it was you that died?"
Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388