The State Capitol may be Minnesota's most beloved building. But politically, it's an orphan.
No party or well-heeled special-interest group comes to the Legislature each year to urge that its needs be met.
The politicians who work inside Cass Gilbert's 107-year-old masterpiece are all transients. Many of them think spending on the Capitol would be seen by political opponents as feathering their own nest.
The result: Minnesota's "people's palace" is in trouble. Decades of deferred maintenance have put the Capitol at what an expert consultant described as a tipping point.
Act soon, said architect David Hart, or the problems will become too costly and complex to be fully solvable. The scaffolds will never come down.
Minnesotans should recoil from that prospect. A 21-member, bipartisan Capitol Preservation Commission last week sent the Legislature a call for a $241 million rescue and revival plan aimed at seeing the Capitol through its next century.
Citizens should join that call. Delaying preservation of this Minnesota icon should no longer be acceptable.
The commission's report details what neglect has wrought:
• The Capitol's Georgia marble exterior is deteriorating rapidly. Commission members were told of the near-term possibility that visitors standing under overhanging ornaments will be at risk.
• Mechanical systems are nearing the end of their useful lives. Electrical systems are inadequately sized; plumbing is prone to leaks, and information technology connections are haphazardly installed and insufficient.
• Security and accessibility need improvement. Neither come close to meeting 21st-century standards.
In addition, the building poorly accommodates its tens of thousands of annual visitors, many of them schoolchildren.
Citizens seeking to witness or participate in committee hearings or meet with legislators are often frustrated by inadequate, ill-arranged public spaces. While fixing those ills is not urgent, the opportunity to do so cost-effectively, while more pressing needs are met, ought to be seized.
The commission voted without dissent to forward its findings to the 2012 Legislature. But it did not recommend a financing strategy. Agreeing on one won't be easy.
GOP Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem voiced a desire to shave the project's cost. He hinted that perhaps this year's funding should be limited to exterior stone work, a $17.5 million item.
The notion of gradually easing into the project found support from Rep. Alice Hausman, the DFL ranking minority member of the House bonding committee. She said the Capitol project must compete with other state infrastructure needs, many of which offer greater economic benefit.
Hausman is right about the nature of the competition for state bonding dollars. But start this project too small, and the political habit of underfunding the Capitol will persist. The work may never get done.
To his credit, Gov. Mark Dayton chaired the preservation commission and expressed support for its recommendation.
But he said that when he unveils a $775 million bonding wish list today, the Capitol won't be on it. Rather, he said, he'll address Capitol needs with a separate initiative.
Here's hoping he does so soon, and in a way that calls Minnesotans to higher stewardship of a precious state asset. This political orphan needs a lot more love.
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