Tuesday, August 21, 2007

35W Special?

State Representative Ryan Winkler (DFL 44B--my rep) unveils a proposal to compensate the victims and investigate the causes of the 35W bridge in an opinion piece in today's Star Tribune:

First, the state should act to provide a prompt, fair compensation system for its citizens. Gov. Tim Pawlenty is already exploring this concept, and if the Legislature meets in special session, it should establish a bridge-collapse victims' compensation fund. A similar, much larger, fund was created by Congress shortly after 9/11. That fund was extremely successful -- 97 percent of the families of those killed in the World Trade Center chose to participate. In exchange for their agreement not to sue, the victims of the attack or their families received prompt, fair compensation. In Minnesota's case, the state and insurance companies representing the engineers and construction companies that worked on the bridge should split the contribution to this fund.

Second, the Legislature should appoint a special counsel for its joint committee to investigate the bridge collapse. The mission of the joint committees is to seek the truth and to establish who had any responsibility for the collapse, regardless of political party, branch of government or limits of liability insurance. To deliver on this mission, the joint committee will need a special counsel to perform the investigation in a way that only a prosecutor knows how to do, and the committee must stand ready with the Legislature's subpoena power to back up that investigation.

At initial glance, the first idea is the least egregious of the two. We should have learned by now that finding the truth is not what special counsels do best. Politicizing matters, expanding the scope of the inquiry far beyond its intent, dragging the investigation out for years, and wasting millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars seem to be the core competencies of most of these appointed "special" counsels. This is not what Minnesota needs.

The problem that I have with the victim's compensation fund is that it significantly broadens the definition of "special" events. A terrorist attack on the United States clearly was such an occurrence. But there's a lot of difference between a bridge collapse in Minneapolis and a 9/11 like event.

Where do we now draw the line? What about the fires, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, blizzards, and other disasters that kill and injure people across the country every year? Governments, whether at the local, state, or federal level, are almost always involved in such events to some extent and the it's easy to argue--as Winkler does here--that those victims deserve prompt and certain compensation too. Should we set up "special" compensation funds for them too?

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