Designs for a new state Senate office building near the Capitol complex are nearly complete, but the controversial project will face renewed scrutiny early next year as House lawmakers — many of who felt blindsided by the proposal — take the project up for a vote.
Lawmakers, architects and officials from the Department of Administration went over almost-finalized outside renderings and three-dimensional models of the $90 million office building last week, a modern-looking glass structure that will sit on the Capitol’s north side. Construction is supposed to start sometime next spring, with the building slated to be complete in 2015. Its construction will coincide with a massive project to renovate the 105-year-old Capitol building.
But before that can happen, the project must clear a public hearing in the House and Senate rules committees, likely sometime in January. Few expect trouble from senators, but some House lawmakers are miffed over how the proposal passed last session.
Senate Democrats included the building in the tax bill in the 2013 session’s final hours. While that bill passed off the floors of both DFL-controlled chambers and was signed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, House Democrats and the governor say there was little talk about the provision until after session ended.
“I understand that the Senate, just like the House, doesn’t like the other chamber interfering in their design-making, but when it’s an expenditure of public funds, especially such a large expenditure, I think the House should have been more involved,” DFL Rep. John Benson, vice-chair of the House rules committee, said. “Unless I can be convinced differently, I’m pretty skeptical of it.”
New building offers public space
But advocates of the project say the building was designed with Minnesotans in mind — not senators.
The new building will include three massive hearing rooms that can hold hundreds of spectators. The need for larger hearings rooms was illustrated last session, advocates say, as huge crowds gathered for high-profile hearings on gun control and gay marriage.
Roughly $27 million of the total project will be spent on a public parking ramp and tunnel level parking for the disabled. There would be a public entrance space and gallery, according to recent renderings, and the building would be home to additional space for the Legislative Reference Library. The library is currently housed in the State Office Building.
Senators on the second and third floors would have offices hugging a front wall of glass facing the north side of the Capitol, and office-level floors are dotted with smaller conference rooms for work. Early brainstorming sessions for the building included a fitness room and a reflecting pool, but those ideas were nixed in the most recent designs, Department of Administration spokesman Curt Yoakum said.
It was those details that sparked the interest of Dayton, who recently expressed concern that the new building was going to become too costly and wouldn’t fit in with the “Minnesota modest” spirit of its neighboring Capitol buildings. Yoakum said they’ve been working to accommodate the governor’s concerns and keep the project in budget.
“Administration has been working with the design build team on things such as changes to the mechanical systems and landscaping to keep it within budget. I think on top of that, administration is also undertaking a benchmarking process for this to compare this building with similar government buildings to make sure the costs and design are in alignment,” Yoakum said. “You aren’t looking at anything out of line here.”
House critics warn of ‘overbuilding’
Republicans have criticized the project since session ended, and the building is subject to a lawsuit from former House Republican lawmaker Jim Knoblach, who says putting it in the tax bill violates the single subject rule in the state constitution. The tax bill is about taxes, not buildings, he said.
DFL House Capital Investment Chairwoman Alice Hausman agrees. She says the new building should have been vetted in bonding committees. She also doesn’t like using a lease-to-purchase bond sale as the financing method for the project.
“It was a way to go around the process and it was a way for this to go to the head of the list over all the other projects we should have done this year,” Hausman said. “Lease-to-purchase is an expensive way to do it, because it requires us in the future to always appropriate for it.”
What’s more, she said the building doesn’t achieve the goals laid out by the Senate, which included providing swing space during Capitol construction and permanently housing all senators from both parties in the same building for the first time in decades. But early renderings show only 44 senator offices for the 67-member chamber in the new space, Hausman said.
“They have made matters worse. They now have some senators in an office building, and some in the Capitol,” she said. “My concern is that we are overbuilding, and for what?”
Originally, the bill was only to go before the Senate rules committee, Hausman said, but she managed to add a provision at last minute that required a House hearing as well.
“Given the reports I’ve seen in the news, I think we have to look very critically at what comes in front of the rules committee,” said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL- South St. Paul, who sits on the panel.
Benson, a fiscal moderate from Minnetonka who is retiring next fall, said there are far better ways to spend state dollars. “We’ve got bridges and roads and all kinds of things that need public financing,” Benson said. “I think senators and representatives can stay in their cubby holes a little longer.”