Colo. politicians debate how to compensate wildfire victims

6:24 PM, Apr 26, 2012   |    comments
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The fire spread from a prescribed burn set by state fire crews, killing three people and burning 27 homes.

Colorado officials are at odds over how to respond.

No amount of money will bring back the three people who lost their lives or replace the countless sentimental objects that burned up, but some politicians feel the state needs to pay something.

"We're going to move forward, the governor can catch up with us when it gets to his desk," Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty said on Tuesday while announcing a plan by House Republicans to ignore established limits on what the state will pay.

The state caps liability claims at $150,000 per person and a total maximum of $600,000 per incident.

Many see $600,000 as a paltry sum to cover three deaths and more than 20 lost homes.

The GOP House members' bill would create a special commission to set damages for this fire.

One fellow Republican strongly disagrees.

"Needless to say they're not happy with me," Attorney General John Suthers (R-Colorado) said. "But I don't think it's a good idea and I'm not going to say it's otherwise because they happen to be Republicans."

Suthers says lawmakers should raise the cap if they don't think it's fair, not ignore it for high-profile cases, because the hard truth is it's not that uncommon for people get hurt or die because of something the state did.

"I think [the House bill] would be totally unfair to all the people that we've settled claims with," Suthers said.

Plenty of cases just as tragic don't get special commissions.

The state only paid $130,000 after a 2004 accident in which a steel girder fell from an C-470 overpass onto Interstate 70, slicing through an SUV and killing a pregnant woman and her family instantly.

Plenty more cases happen out of sight in state prisons and mental institutions.

"We have state doctors who commit malpractice and some of them are pretty serious," Suthers said.

The cap allows the state to budget a few million dollars to pay out each year for those cases, a way to do something without breaking the bank.

The cap on damages hasn't been raised since the late 1980s. Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) has not come out in support of any particular plan to compensate fire victims.

Spokesman Eric Brown wrote: "Maybe the cap should be raised, but much more discussion would need to take place first."

When pressed on whether the governor will encourage that discussion, Brown answered that "the legislature is welcome to discuss anything they wish."

(KUSA-TV © 2012 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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