On Wednesday morning, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton started what should have been a routine meeting to approve the next phase of renovations on the 109-year-old Capitol building with some surprising news. Hours of negotiations with legislative leaders had deadlocked on a seemingly perfunctory issue — who would get to use what space inside the revamped Capitol and its surrounding buildings.
History shows that decisions that affect Capitol culture are almost always tough. A similar debate on Capitol space in 2003, between Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature, was also the source of controversy. And an agreement on space under Gov. Arne Carlson was only reached after a court case.
But for the first time the public could see the ramifications of an issue that usually doesn’t get much attention outside the Capitol walls — the disagreements have the potential to delay the $273 million restoration project.
“I always thought this would be the most difficult moment of the entire process, where we’re trying allocate the space,” Dayton said, telling surprised members of the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission that they could not approve the next work package on the restoration until an agreement is reached.
There are all sorts of complications that could happen if they don’t reach that agreement soon, project managers and state officials said Wednesday. For instance, Capitol renovation contracts need to be renewed by the end of the month or they expire. Construction companies might move workers off the Capitol grounds and on to other projects if work doesn’t continue on schedule. And then there’s the price tag: Department of Administration Commissioner Matt Massman said project costs could increase up to $680,000 per month if leaders don’t reach an agreement.
Leaders are trying to assure the public that it won’t get to that point. They’ve given themselves an extra week to come up with a solution, but leadership wouldn’t go into detail on the nature of the disagreement over space.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, whose new position after the election is one of the main reasons they had to renew negotiations, said he thinks the public should get more space. “The House doesn’t really need more space in the Capitol, but I do feel like there’s a shortage of space for the public to meet. If there’s a group that comes to the Capitol, if they can reserve a room for the day or a half a day or something, so I’ve been really trying to make that a priority,” Daudt said. “I think we are pretty close.”
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said the construction of a new $77 million office building for senators changes the dynamic of the restoration project and who goes where once the Capitol is fully restored. The building is slated to be completed in December of 2015, and it will have offices for all 67 senators. But some leadership members may also have offices in the Capitol, Bakk said.
“Space allocation agreements have always been hard to arrive at,” Bakk said. “Where we find ourselves is, this is really complicated by the fact that we are building a new building.”
That has miffed the Republican minority in the Senate, who say blueprints from the Department of Administration show at least 20 senators might have offices in both buildings. Republicans have criticized the building since it was proposed in the 2013 tax bill as a waste of money, and the project became a key campaign issue last fall.
“These plans were created after the House and Senate Rules Committee agreed all 67 Senators would have their offices in the new building,” Senate Minority Leader David Hann said in a statement. “This tells me they had no intention of honoring that agreement.”
The wrinkle over the space is part of a larger narrative about the session so far, during which the Capitol itself is the biggest point of contention. Lawmakers are still entertaining the idea of not holding a session in 2016, when the restoration project will close off everything but the House chambers.
For his part, Dayton downplayed the politics of the delay and suggested the renewed discussion opens up more opportunities to make the Capitol and its surrounding buildings more accessible to the public in the future.
“The ownership [of the Capitol] clearly is the public’s,” Dayton said. “The way this has been operated up until now has been pretty much within the purview of the Legislature. We are saying, the Legislature has a role here, but there is really a broader interest than what’s been served here. In terms of the culture and what expectations are…we are talking about a fresh start.”