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GOP calls Senate office building ‘boondoggle’; House DFL and Dayton remain cautious

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, meanwhile, defends the project and says the new building should have been approved by now.

A rendering depicting the latest design for the new Senate office building near the Capitol complex.
State of Minnesota

Who would have guessed the star of the 2014 Minnesota legislative session would be an office building? 

The proposed $90 million Senate office building and parking ramp was at the crux of political debate last week, as Gov. Mark Dayton accused Senate DFL leadership of holding up a time-sensitive package of tax cuts to move the stalled project forward.

The building was back at the center of attention at the Capitol Monday as Republicans took a whack at the project. Calling it a “boondoggle,” Republicans have introduced a bill that would repeal enabling language in last year’s tax bill that would allow the office project to go forward. 

“It was passed without a hearing, and it was also passed without a budget,” Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, told reporters at a Capitol news conference. “It’s also unpopular … the only thing more unpopular than the tax increases passed last year is this building.”

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The language passed last year allows the state to enter into a lease-to-purchase agreement to pay for the buliding. Dean added that Republicans believe the project is unconstitutional. Lawmakers have a single-subject rule for major bills, meaning a building shouldn’t be approved in a proposal dealing with taxes, he said.

A Ramsey County judge, however, recently tossed out a lawsuit from former GOP Rep. Jim Knoblach trying to block the project on that point, but Knoblach has appealed the ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Republicans, though, didn’t offer up a Plan B for senators, who will be displaced from their Capitol offices after the 2015 session as part of the building’s massive restoration project. They suggested senators find offices in another building somewhere on the Capitol grounds, but had no specific suggestions. 

It’s certain the building will stay in the Capitol spotlight for some time. The project awaits final approval in the House Rules Committee. House DFL leaders says they’ve asked the Department of Administration to look into ways to cut back on the cost of the office project and are awaiting word before moving forward.

The project has become a political rallying point for Republicans, who have readily attacked the building as wasteful spending and labeled early designs extravagant. Dayton and House Democrats, who are on the ballot this fall, have been careful to not fully endorse the project in its current form. Senate Democrats aren’t up for re-election until 2016.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk says the new building should have been approved by now. 

“The new building, under the construction schedule, was supposed to be in the ground on March 1. I think we are already incurring cost overruns on both the new building and on the Capitol at this point,” he said. “It’s of urgent concern to the Senate.”