Seven months after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge, the Minnesota Senate has joined the House in passing a compensation fund for the victims, but the debate over how far taxpayers should be asked to go is proving divisive.

The Senate unanimously approved a special $26.5 million fund on Thursday, but set a $400,000 limit on individual claims. The House, which passed its plan nearly as decisively two weeks ago, included no such limit and put nearly $40 million in the fund.

With the issue headed for a conference committee, legislators are wrestling with such questions as how differently, if at all, the bridge-collapse victims should be treated from victims of other disasters -- such as floods and tornadoes -- and whether the state's budget problems should be a reason to limit payouts.

Kimberly Brown, who was injured last Aug. 1 while on the bridge and who watched the Senate vote along with two dozen other victims and supporters, said legislators were letting too many other factors influence the compensation. "I just think it's not these people's fault that we're in a budget shortfall," she said of her fellow victims.

Many senators said during debate that the proposal, known as HF2553, represented the best balance between being responsible to the victims and acknowledging the $935 million state budget shortfall that was announced late last month.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, the chief Senate sponsor, received handshakes and congratulations after the Senate approved the plan 63-0.

"I know that all of our hearts are in the same place," Latz said. But he added that the compensation debate was a "battle between our hearts and our minds," and that ultimately the bridge collapse was "no different than any other negligence case."

He added that many of the victims would be compensated by private insurance and said legislators "do not need to feel compelled to [have the state] shoulder 100 percent of the financial responsibility" to compensate the victims.

Thursday's floor session brought to the forefront lingering emotions from the tragedy, which killed 13 and left more than a hundred injured. In addition to the survivors looking down from the gallery, lobbyists handed out cards to senators that reminded them that "this is a unique man-made disaster" and urged them to oppose individual caps.

Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, said he had driven over the bridge just 10 minutes before the collapse as he headed home. "I just kind of stood there in shock," he said, recalling his feelings as he learned of the collapse, "wondering what in the world might have spared me."

Comparing the bridge collapse to other cases, said Chaudhary, "discounts the magnitude of this."

Cap may be tough to move

After the vote, Latz said any attempt by the conference committee to eliminate the $400,000 cap would have trouble clearing the Senate.

"I got a very strong message from my colleagues in the Senate," he said. A move Thursday in the chamber to drop the individual cap, and essentially adopt the House proposal, was defeated 53-9.

Under the Senate legislation, state law would be changed so that the limit on individual claims by bridge victims would be increased from $300,000 to $400,000. In addition, a $1 million total limit on state liability for claims rising out of a single event would be waived, though they could not exceed the $26.5 million in the fund.

Bill wouldn't admit liability

With the cause of the bridge collapse still the subject of multiple investigations, legislators stressed that the compensation fund is not an admission of liability by the state. However, people who accept a payment, the proposal stated, would release the state from any liability.

The Senate plan, like the House proposal, would limit the ability of insurance companies to subtract the state's compensation from any private settlement. Latz said the legislation would "do what we can to try to protect" payments to victims.

With supporters and opponents of the individual limits expected to continue their aggressive lobbying, Gov. Tim Pawlenty could play a pivotal role. Though the governor set aside $40 million in his proposed budget for the compensation fund -- a figure in line with the House plan -- Latz said Pawlenty's office had worked closely with him on the Senate legislation.

"We know there are a number of families [whose losses] far exceed the $400,000," said Joel Carlson, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Association for Justice, which represents trial lawyers and opposes the cap. "I think a lot of lawyers will tell you there's 13 for sure -- the death cases."

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, who pushed unsuccessfully to eliminate the cap, said state officials needed to put the bridge victims in a special category. "There is no way those people could have defensively done anything," he said. "You've seen the video [of the bridge collapse] -- Boom!"

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388