I have had several constituents contact me about the Emergency Hardship Fund for the I-35W Bridge victims. Here is a very recent summary of the information from Senator Ron Latz, Chairman of the Joint House/Senate Subcommittee on Claims:
Rep. Dennis Ozment (my co-chair), myself and 4 other bi-partisan members held two day-long information gathering hearings focused on the I-35W Bridge collapse to discuss ways to address the needs of the survivors and the families of the victims. We have sought to objectively evaluate the human, policy, legal and financial ramifications of a variety of options. We have focused on potential claims issues, not liability. Hearing testimony was provided first and foremost by the survivors and families of the victims, various state agencies, Ken Feinberg (9/11 Federal Fund Administrator) and the MN State Bar Association. These discussions yielded at least two consensus positions:
1: That we should try to get some immediate money to families struggling with acute financial problems and:
2: that the $1 million aggregate liability cap in existing state law should be removed. We feel that the legislature did not contemplate a loss of this scope when enacting the aggregate cap. As the law stands now, the cap would compress individuals’ recovery to a tiny fraction of actual loss.
A third issue, the individual recovery cap of $300,000 (scheduled to increase to $400,000 for incidents occurring after January 1, 2008) in existing law, has not yet found consensus, in part because of the ramifications for all local governments governed by a related law. The cap issue will be subject to much additional legislative discussion and would require formal action by the entire legislature and Governor.
On November 29, the Claims Subcommittee recommended to the Dept of Administration and the Governor’s office a method to use existing executive spending authority to provide immediate relief to the survivors of the collapse. Discussions within the committee and with others during the hearing day resulted in a broadening of the proposal which was recommended to the executive branch. Should further funding be available, I am hopeful that additional relief may be offered.
The I-35W Emergency Hardship Fund was designed to provide prompt relief opportunities to those who were on the bridge and were either injured or died in the collapse. It was the only way to provide funds before the legislative session begins in February. It is just the first step to assist individuals and families and the subcommittee felt it was imperative to move as quickly as possible to access funds that would address a small portion of the monetary issues facing survivors.
Payments in the amount of $10,000 will be limited per person and would be based on lost wages due to injury or death. Survivors told us that a major source of financial distress was their loss of usual income when missing work and because we hope to avoid subrogation claims against these payments. The total funding is $1 million in already existing appropriations in the Trunk Highway fund and General fund set aside for tort claims. The executive branch already had spending authority for this money and purpose and it will be administered through an existing claims process through the Dept. of Administration.
The 2008 legislative session will likely produce a broader package designed for further compensation and the Claims Subcommittee plans to continue discussions about what further decisions may be available.
If you would like to make an opinion known to the Claims Subcommittee feel free to e-mail me. Your suggestions or comments will be made available.