Just days after the I-35W bridge collapse, state Rep. Ryan Winkler, a DFLer from Golden Valley who also happens to be an attorney, had something of an epiphany.
“I was thinking from a state point of view, about what were the causes, what had happened, and whether we were going to have an open conversation about these things,” Winkler recalls. “Then I started thinking like a lawyer and started thinking that there was going to be a lot of litigation.”
Seemingly a “no-duh” realization, Winkler’s thought process proved to be slightly ahead of the curve. No doubt some political leaders—a certain governor and a couple of AWOL Minnesota Department of Transportation honchos—had similar, uh, worries, but Winkler followed it further: Time to set up a special compensation fund.
Rather than inventing a new way for careless Democrats to spend your hard-earned tax dollars, Winkler was taking a far more pragmatic approach. The idea, he says, would be to dispense money to the victims as a means of preventing what would surely be a multitude of lawsuits against the state of Minnesota. Aside from wanting to see survivors adequately compensated, he also felt the state would be better not wasting time and money fending off legal action. If victims and survivors bought into the fund, they would waive their rights to sue. “The idea is to keep the process simple,” Winkler says, “and get it done quickly.”
Worker’s comp model
Tricky on both counts. For instance, no one is really sure how many people were on the bridge and affected — not just physically, but emotionally and mentally as well — by the disaster. “We’ve heard as many as 170 people,” Winkler says. Also, how to decide who gets what and how much?
One idea posited is that the state treat injury claims like worker’s compensation claims — for instance, a formula for 13 dead and 100 injured would cost somewhere around $8 million. But Winkler points to a “wide-open, unlimited fund” modeled in similar fashion after the New York 9/11 fund, which would drive the price tag up to nearly 10 times that. (The state has caps on how much can be given out in an event such as a bridge collapse — $1 million total, but that cap might be waived to thwart lawsuits. There is also a state cap of $300,000 on how much individuals can receive, something that might still be in play.)
Kenneth Feinberg, the “special master” of the 9/11 fund, has shared his experience with Winkler and others at the Capitol. “He has said it’s perfectly reasonable for us to designate a master and set up a fund now,” according to Winkler.
Still, an infamous round of political and personal scuffling over that fund could serve as a forewarning, and Feinberg cautioned against it. “Nobody will do another 9/11 fund,” Winkler insists. “There were 5,300 people who were paid $7 billion, and Feinberg was able to open checks directly from the U.S. Treasury.”
$1 million in donations
As for the second matter of getting it done quickly, that appears unlikely. Tim Pawlenty’s people have indicated to Winkler that the governor will support a fund. But the guv has thus far refused to hold a special session dealing with the bridge (the one earlier this year was limited to flood relief for southeastern Minnesota), and Winkler has little hope that Pawlenty will do so before the regular legislative session convenes in February. So, Winkler and other lawmakers are looking for an alternative, to see if there’s any way to dispense funds without first passing legislation. To that end, there will be yet another house subcommittee meeting today on the matter.
Private citizens have donated nearly $1 million that’s being handled by the Minneapolis Foundation, but it’s unclear what will happen to that money. And it’s not nearly enough.
Word among the survivors though, is that they’re feeling snubbed. “The biggest story is getting Minnesota to do something,” says Brent Olson, a White Bear Lake accountant who walked away from the fall with his wife, and is in close contact with a group of about 30 other survivors. “The people who were on that bridge haven’t seen a dime.”