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Survivors of the Aug. 1, 2007 Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis listen in the Minnesota House gallery Thursday, Feb. 28, 2008 in St. Paul, Minn., where lawmakers passed a bill that would set up a $40 million compensation fund. Survivors' attorney Chris Meserly is shown wearing a suit while several survivors wore red with buttons which featured a 35W highway sign.

Jim Mone, Associated Press

Construction crews worked last month on the new I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River.

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

House OKs $40 million for bridge survivors

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE
  • Star Tribune
  • February 29, 2008 - 9:55 AM

Nearly $40 million would be set aside for survivors of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse under legislation approved Thursday in an emotional session of the Minnesota House, amid concerns about its cost and the precedent it establishes.

The compensation plan was sponsored by Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who said it will help defray losses not covered by insurance or other sources of aid for bridge survivors.

"It's time for us to take action," said Winkler, calling the collapse "a failure of government" that justifies state remedies. "The survivors of this bridge collapse have been waiting since August 1st."

The measure passed 120 to 10, but not before Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, called it expensive "feel-good" legislation at a time when the state faces a budget shortfall.

"Your bill ... proposes to pull $40 million out of the already-stressed general fund," Emmer said.

He unsuccessfully urged funding the compensation with revenue raised from a Twin Cities sales tax increase authorized this week by the DFL-led Legislature as part of a transportation package.

About 20 survivors or relatives of bridge victims attended Thursday's House session, wearing red in the visitors gallery above the floor.

"I see a lot of people who need help -- the emotional damage, the physical," said Betsy Sathers, 32, of Blaine, her eyes welling up after the vote. Her husband, Scott, 29, died in the bridge collapse.

The legislation passed after Rep. Tom Tillberry, DFL-Fridley, delivered an impassioned speech about a friend, Patrick Holmes, 36, who also died in the collapse.

"His wife is up in the gallery right now, listening to this," Tillberry said. "There is time in this body that we need to take emotion and we have to have passion. It's not just about the dollars and cents."

The legislation would compensate survivors of the bridge collapse, including family members, for lost wages, medical expenses, burial costs, physical and emotional pain and suffering, and physical impairment. It also would cover damages attributed to "inconvenience" and "loss of enjoyment of life, and loss of society and companionship."

It does not limit the amount of money available to each individual, but requires the compensation to be offset by any payout a person receives from health insurance or lawsuits against bridge contractors. But insurance companies would be barred from reducing or eliminating payments to survivors compensated by the state.

The Senate has a companion measure that would cap the compensation for an individual survivor at $400,000.

In both bills, bridge victims would need to waive their right to sue the state if they seek special compensation.

Exactly how many people might qualify for compensation under either measure isn't clear, but 13 people died and 145 people were injured in the Aug. 1 bridge collapse in Minneapolis.

Winkler said the bill provides an alternative to lawsuits for people seeking compensation and could save the state money. He stressed that attorneys could not recover money from the fund.

Republicans criticized a provision allowing the fund to be available to compensate victims of future catastrophes designated by the Legislature.

"Who gets to be the victim that's important enough for us here in the Legislature to deal with?" Emmer asked.

Winkler replied, "The question is not which victims are worthy ... [but] what catastrophes the state of Minnesota is solely responsible for. ... It was solely a state responsibility to prevent it, and it's solely a state responsibility to respond."

Emmer also questioned why $680,000 was earmarked for Waite House, a Minneapolis nonprofit whose school bus was on the bridge when it collapsed, to provide social services for surviving children on the vehicle.

"Three-quarters of a million dollars for mental health counseling?" Emmer asked. "There should have been some insurance."

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210

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