It’s become a familiar pattern at the State Capitol: A small but potentially controversial provision is added to a voluminous spending bill at the very end of a legislative session, then threatens political fallout when it comes to light.
This time it’s GOP Speaker Kurt Daudt facing the consequences. Earlier this year, Daudt championed a $2 million boost in state spending on the ongoing Capitol building renovation, specifically earmarked to refurbish antique furniture and enhance other historical touches in legislative office space in the new building.
That additional spending, 45 percent more than initially recommended by the state agency managing the renovation, was quietly tucked into the larger, $373 million bonding bill that lawmakers approved during the June special session.
“The Capitol renovation has had broad bipartisan support from the very beginning, and there’s been an attitude that we’re going to do this right,” Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, chair of the House bonding committee, said Thursday. “There’s not much appetite to cut corners.”
The additional furnishing upgrades will match similar, previously planned upgrades in public parts of the Capitol. The new upgrades are tentatively planned for parts of the building that will primarily be used by lawmakers and their staffs.
The Associated Press reported the new spending this week. E-mails first obtained by the AP raised the possibility of more historically compatible furniture, higher-end upholstery and refinished hardwood floors, along with a $10,000 door in an office area to be controlled by the House majority.
“The folks I represent are already not keen on public officials, so when it comes to spending like this — where there’s a perception we could benefit from it — we have to be extra careful,” said Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights. During the June 12-13 special session, Atkins took the unusual step of not voting at all on the bonding bill, saying he supported many of its projects but felt he was not well-enough informed about the $2 million addition to the Capitol project.
While the dollar amount is much smaller, the circumstances recall the Legislature’s 2013 vote to authorize a new $90 million office building for the state Senate that’s now under construction. When that spending came to light publicly, also after the fact, Daudt led other legislative Republicans in frequent, scathing criticism of DFLers who then controlled the Legislature for approving spending that appeared to benefit lawmakers directly. A number of successful Republican legislative candidates in 2014 used the building to criticize incumbent DFLers, at least some of whom voted in favor of the $2 million spending boost for the Capitol office space.
“Clearly that was something that they were hitting on as a symbol of what they claimed was wasteful government spending by Democrats,” said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. Thissen voted for the bonding bill, but said he did not know at the time that the $2 million addition would be spent on parts of the Capitol used by the legislative caucuses.
Daudt’s spokeswoman, Susan Closmore, said Daudt was traveling Thursday and was not able to comment. Closmore said neither Daudt nor any other House Republicans would have offices in the upgraded area. Space that’s reserved for the House majority will be used for meetings, and for members to meet with constituents. In one e-mail, a top aide to Daudt referred to “the Speaker and Majority Leader offices” while discussing possible upgrades, but Closmore said that was in reference to Department of Administration blueprints that identified the rooms that way.
“Renovating Minnesota’s State Capitol has always been a bipartisan effort aimed at restoring the building to its original glory,” Closmore said, noting that many Democrats also voted for the bonding bill, and that Gov. Mark Dayton signed it. A special commission including Dayton, other state officials, lawmakers and public members who oversee the Capitol renovation project will have the final say in how the additional $2 million is spent as part of the renovation.
To the question of a $10,000 door, Closmore confirmed that Daudt’s aide inquired about the cost. But she said Daudt’s office did not learn that such a door would cost $10,000 until reading the AP story. Matt Massman, commissioner of the Department of Administration, confirmed that to the Star Tribune.
“I think it’s correct that estimate had not been formally shared with the speaker or the House leadership office,” Massman. But he said the whole notion of more extensive historical enhancements originated with Daudt.
“My conversations were almost exclusively with the speaker’s office in that regard,” Massman said.