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At Issue: Bill over troubled water

Published (4/25/2008)
By Brian Hogenson
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One of the first issues addressed by the Legislature when session began was how to compensate those who were victimized by the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge. Legislation sponsored by Rep. Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley) and Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park), and supported by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, was passed by the House and Senate early in the session. It looked like compensation for the victims was running on a smooth track toward the finish line.

The legislation, however, has hit a series of potholes in conference committee, culminating with the House conferees leaving the April 14 meeting over what they viewed as a Senate proposal that offered no compromise on the major differences between the House and Senate bills.

“The speed with which the House and Senate generated their bills created anticipation that there would be meaningful legislative response to this disaster,” said Jim Schwebel, one of the attorneys representing victims pro-bono. “It’s surprising to me that it’s gotten sidetracked.”

Another attorney providing pro-bono representation for victims said the impasse is taking a toll on people who have already suffered substantially since the bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007, killing 13 and injuring 85 others.

“They are more frustrated now than I think they have ever been,” Chris Messerly said. “I get calls daily from victims expressing their frustration.”

In addition to the inability to come to agreement on legislation, House and Senate conferees are unable to reach agreement on why the committee is stalled.

Latz said the ball is in the court of Winkler and the House. “If the House chooses not to come back, the House is responsible for nothing being done,” he said. “We have a very serious offer on the table that we believe meets the needs of survivors.”

Winkler is confident the committee will get something done. He said being able to reach agreement on the total compensation fund appropriation could be a possible step in getting negotiations moving again. The Senate bill would appropriate $25 million, while the House appropriation would be $40 million. The governor has set aside $40 million.

“There’s disagreement as to what the best approach is,” Winkler said. “We’ll see who’s willing to negotiate.”

According to Winkler, the three biggest issues to be worked out are:

• whether to create a permanent statutory framework for catastrophe response that will leave a template in place for future legislatures;

• the total amount to be appropriated to the survivor compensation fund; and

• whether to remove the individual state liability cap for victims.

The Senate has remained firm both in its opposition to creating a permanent statutory framework and its unwillingness to waive the liability cap.

Compounding the disagreements are the different lenses the House and Senate are using to view the situation. According to Winkler, the House bill is part of an overall emergency framework, while the Senate is viewing it as a tort claim against the state, similar to what may arise from a car accident involving a state vehicle.

The Senate offer waives the $1 million aggregate cap that sets a ceiling for what the state will pay out for a single incident, retroactively increases the individual cap to the current figure of $400,000 and refuses to make payments to victims unless subrogation rights are waived by employers.

“We make sure that the money they get cannot be used to reduce payments from other benefit sources,” Latz said.

The offer also waives three state requirements in order to give victims easier access to health benefits through the Minnesota Comprehensive Health Association.

Latz said that helping victims with long-term medical expenses is the most important goal that survivors and lawyers have expressed to him.

Messerly said the victims he is representing support the House side “because of the fact that the victims are unified in not wanting to hurt the most seriously harmed.”

The Senate has done very little to compromise, according to Messerly, “most notably their stance on a hard and inflexible cap of $400,000, which they are aware would hurt the most seriously harmed.”

Schwebel said that it is not unusual for things to stall in conference committee, and he does not view the differences as insurmountable.

“It is unusual for the tactic of some to just walk out and stop negotiating,” Schwebel said. “It would be a terrible reflection on the Legislature if they let this session wind to an end with no action being taken.”

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