ST. PAUL, Minn. – Cold financial reality is starting to intrude on the Minnesota Legislature's desire to help the victims of last year's Interstate 35W bridge collapse.
Proposals for a victim compensation fund are being hustled through both houses, with an eye toward putting it into state law this spring. Floor debates could begin next week. But what initially appeared to be an unrestrained helping hand extended toward more than 150 collapse victims is looking less so these days.
"We are dealing with tens of millions of dollars in a budget under severe pressures," Sen. Ron Latz said Tuesday. "In a zero-sum budget, which I think is the reality we're dealing with this year, every dollar that goes here does not go into your districts for schools, roads, bridges, local government aid."
The state is facing a budget deficit last measured at $373 million. Lawmakers expect the picture to worsen when finance officials update their forecast next week.
About a dozen collapse victims and their spouses were listening to Latz during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, some looking discouraged. They endured the panel's legalistic pingpong for more than 2-1/2 hours on Tuesday night, after many of them sat through an earlier House hearing.
Her voice shaking at times, Jennifer Holmes told the senators about losing her husband, Pat, and raising their two small children alone -- without him, his income or his health insurance. She said she hopes the final bill will not limit payments to individual victims.
"There are some people who don't need that much but there are others, the Coulters and Mercedes (Gorden) -- a ton of other people who are, you know, facing much more than that $400,000," said Holmes. "If it could be split up differently so that the people who really need help can get it, so they're not facing bankruptcy."
Paula Coulter, who is recovering from a brain injury, said she hopes for support.
The Senate bill would limit payments to $400,000 per victim, which could leave the most severely injured with much less than they've lost. That's the state's liability limit for individuals as of Jan. 1, and Latz's bill would make it retroactive to Aug. 1, the day the bridge fell.
It wouldn't be fair to give bridge collapse victims more than other victims could get, said Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. Bridge victims, too, might stand to recover money from private companies involved in maintaining and inspecting the structure, he added.
The House bill from Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, would not cap individual awards but would divide somewhere between $30 million and $60 million among the victims.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty has backed Latz's proposal in concept.
If the two versions don't match up, a conference committee will be appointed to work out the differences.