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House advances plans for $77 million Senate office building

Courtesy of the House Rules Committee
A rendering of the proposed legislative office building.

Advancing one of the critical negotiation pieces of the 2014 session, House lawmakers have approved revamped plans for a controversial legislative office building that will hold all 67 state senators during and after a disruptive Capitol restoration project.

After more than three hours of discussion, the House Rules Committee on Friday passed a redesigned $77 million legislative office building and attached parking facility on 14-13 vote. The new plan is a bit cheaper than the $93.5 million project that was pitched by designers last fall, and it provides space for all senators and staff from both parties while cutting down on design features. The original plan had space for only 44 of the state’s 67 senators. 

Senators argue they need the new building after the 2015 session, when they will be displaced from their Capitol offices to make way for the restoration of the 105-year-old building.

“It’s hard for me to imagine a functioning government with senators sprinkled throughout several buildings,” House DFL Majority Leader Erin Murphy said. “I think we have to answer the question of where the Senate is housed.”

The project has been a source of controversy for both parties since last spring, when Democrats passed $3 million in the tax bill to design the project.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and House Democrats have been reluctant to fully endorse the building, facing an election year and political backlash from Republicans. The project has also been a sticking point in negotiations between the DFLers in control of state government on everything from taxes to bonding.  Late last month, Dayton accused senators of holding up a time-sensitive package of tax cuts in order to push the project forward.

“There is a strong political charge that is attached to this effort,”Murphy said. “I think the House has done a very good job of thinking through all the alternatives.”

Republicans criticize project

Now that the key Senate priority has moved forward, many other outstanding pieces of the 2014 session are likely to start falling into place. Legislators have to adjourn by May 19.

But Republicans in the House used the hearing to criticize Democrats for passing the proposal with little public input in the final days of the session. Those criticisms are likely to transfer over to the campaign trail this fall.

Former GOP Rep. Jim Knoblach is trying to block the project in court, arguing that a building can’t be included in a tax bill under the Legislature’s single-subject rule.

A Ramsey County judge rejected that argument, but Knoblach has appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

“The process that was put in place by inserting this in the tax bill last year without a committee hearing is unprecedented, and putting it through in such a manner is unprecedented,” Rep. Matt Dean, the GOP lead on the House Capital Investment Committee, said. “It doesn’t go unnoticed.”

Republicans also questioned how the building will be paid for – Democrats currently use a lease-to-purchase agreement to fund the building – as well as who will use the space in the Capitol and other office buildings when senators leave.  

“We don’t have any more senators, we don’t have any more members of the House of Representatives,” Dean said. “Why do we need more offices?”

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt called the project a “palatial senate office building.”

“It just astounds me to what level the DFL is tone deaf on this,” Daudt said.

New cost analysis

After an initial hearing on the building at the start of session, House members asked the Department of Administration to analyze other possible options.

Among their questions: Is there enough space to hold senators in any nearby buildings on the Capitol complex? Is it cheaper to lease space for senators somewhere else, both temporarily and in the long term?

Most of the department’s responses Friday boiled down to an unequivocal “no.”

Speaker Paul Thissen and House DFL Majority Leader Erin Murphy
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
“It’s hard for me to imagine a functioning government with senators sprinkled throughout several buildings,” House DFL Majority Leader Erin Murphy said. Speaker Paul Thissen is at left.

None of the nearby Capitol buildings, including the Department of Transportation headquarters and the old Ford Building, has adequate space for all the senators, said Wayne Waslaski of the Department of Administration. Making space for them would have build-out costs and could delay the restoration project up to two years.   

“Not everything that’s in the Capitol is going to be able to get back in [the Capitol],” Waslaski said. “We really want this building to be preserved for the next 100 years.”

Renting space outside of the Capitol complex would require a “convention center-type” accommodation to hold all senators, Waslaski said.  In the short term, renting space could cost up to $32.5 million, but over 30 years it could cost up to $220 million.

New plan

Given that information, Murphy said the most “cost-effective” way to move forward is with the new building, with a few House tweaks.

Among the changes:

  • A mechanical room was moved up to the rooftop of the building giving space to all 67 senators. They also cut the number of conference rooms in the building in half and shrunk office sizes to make room for everyone.
  • The House reduced some of the glass on the façade of the building facing the Capitol’s north side.
  • There’s no more service tunnel at the parking level, and the lot will now be “user-financed.”
  • The roof level no longer has skylight and green-roof options.

Dayton called original plans for the building “unMinnesotan” and “overly lavish” and was critical of the wall of glass on the façade in original plans. He argued that the Capitol shouldn’t be outshined by any nearby buildings. 

Republicans argued that the new plan cut back on parking spaces that were supposed to be available to the public.

“You are going to build a building for the Senate, but you are going to take the public’s garage out,” GOP Rep. Kurt Zellers said.

The original plan passed through the Senate Rules Committee earlier this year, but the revamped plan will now have to go back to the upper chamber for final approval. The Senate has scheduled a Rules Committee hearing on Monday. 

“I commend the House Rules Committee for taking an important step to allow both the Capitol restoration project and the new Capitol office building to proceed,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said in a statement Friday. 

“There remains broad support for the long overdue restoration of Minnesota’s deteriorating Capitol building, which will permanently bump many of the Senate’s hearing rooms and offices out of the Capitol and into a new building across the street,” he continued. “As the Department of Administration confirmed again today, every other feasible alternative and any further delay would be more costly, both in the short term and in the long term.”

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/04/2014 - 04:27 pm.

    This is better

    Not that Senator Bakk is holding his breath, waiting for my approval, but I’m pretty much in line with the House DFL changes to the original proposal.

    It houses all the Senators of both parties. If it doesn’t meet that basic criteria, there’s no point in building it at all.

    Some of the glass on the north side has been reduced, apparently, and that’s all to the good in terms of energy conservation. In this climate, that ought to be – but apparently wasn’t – a no-brainer.

    Were I a Senator, I might feel differently, but as a taxpayer, I’m willing to give up the skylights (easily) and the green roof (reluctantly) if it helps reduce the cost of the building while simultaneously making it easier to house all 67 Senators therein.

    I think the Minnesota Capitol building is ugly – not extraordinarily ugly, but ugly in the way that almost all capitol buildings are ugly, stuck as they are in the neoclassical architectural rut – but if we’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars refurbishing the capitol building, I absolutely do not want a mere legislative office building to outshine it architecturally.

    So this is better. Not perfect, but better.

    We should all now await the inevitable – the first of many pleas to do essentially the same thing with House office space via a new House office building.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 04/04/2014 - 06:58 pm.

    Of Course We Can Guarantee

    That House and Senate Republicans will not propose a SINGLE idea that actually addresses the problems this new senate office building and parking ramp solve,…

    but they’ll certainly find 77 million things wrong with it.

    Perhaps our Republican Senatorial friends would actually enjoy being spread all over the neighborhood,…

    that way, the hoi polloi (you know, the people from the Districts whom they actually represent) won’t be able to find them too easily,…

    but personally, when I want to visit my senator, I appreciate all their offices being in the same building and easy to locate.

    I only WISH the Republicans could come up with a single, legitimate idea that addresses any of the issues of our state, but for far too long, their mantra has been, endlessly, an nauseum, whatever the Democrats and “liberals” want, no matter how carefully and extensively researched and cautiously and incrementally proposed, is WRONG.

    (WE don’t have a clue what would be better, especially when all of our pet ideas have now been proven not to work in the way we were, and remain, convinced they CERTAINLY MUST, we only know that THEY are wrong — because if they’re not, then WE must be — which we cannot possibly be.)

  3. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 04/05/2014 - 03:30 am.

    ’tis hard to imagine

    “It’s hard for me to imagine a functioning government with senators sprinkled throughout several buildings,” House DFL Majority Leader Erin Murphy said.

    Actually, it’s hard for me to imagine a functioning state government at all–collapsing bridges, MNSure nightmare, attacks in nursing homes, you name it. What the Senate uses as an office is not a key issue, however. If they get a new building, state government will still be a disaster. What we really need is not lavish spending on offices but some intelligence and dedication from government for a change.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/05/2014 - 06:01 am.

    Golden tickets

    I wonder who got the golden tickets.

  5. Submitted by John Appelen on 04/05/2014 - 09:22 am.

    Missing Something…

    In our world of computers/efficiency gains, outsourcing of some functions, etc, why again does our government need more office space?

    I don’t think we have added head count in “elected positions”. What am I missing?

    Are they using the Capitol for document storage?
    Are the staff’s for these people getting excessive?
    What am I missing?

  6. Submitted by Betty Huff on 04/05/2014 - 10:29 am.

    new state government building

    In comparison to spending this much tax money on new digs for lawmakers, many schools have to hold classes in trailers placed wherever there is room for them. Why are the legislators deemed more worthy than schools and school children?

  7. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 04/06/2014 - 02:40 am.

    The oligarchy and its servants take care of each other

    Betty Huff, the legislators think they are more important than school children attending school in trailers because our country is increasingly becoming an oligarchy. A few families have most of the money and their servant politicians receive rewards such as nice office digs for their subservience.

    The problem could be compounded by the food supply. Since eating too much saturated fat and/or sugar lowers IQ and our politicians don’t seem too smart, it’s likely that we can at least partially blame the food for the stupid behavior of politicians. One wonders just how much fat these politicians have been chewing and sugarcoating.

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