As Republican candidates faulted DFLers for misplaced priorities during a 2014 campaign that resulted in a GOP takeover of the Minnesota House, one DFL move was their Exhibit A. DFLers had spent $90 million on a luxury office building for the state Senate, voters were told in nearly every district.
Those voters — and maybe a few new Republican legislators — may be surprised to learn that those words aren't technically true. The only spending taxpayers have done so far for the building that is rising across University Avenue from the State Capitol is $3 million for designing the place. (The "luxury" part isn't true, either. If it were, senior DFL senators might not be so reluctant to leave the Capitol.)
The remainder of the $89.6 million project's cost has been financed upfront by purchasers of state "certificates of participation," which differ in several key respects from the usual approach to financing state buildings — issuing general obligation bonds. No taxes stand to be automatically raised if needed to pay the debt service, as a bond provides. The certificates' terms are longer, their repayment structure flatter and their interest rates higher. These were issued at 3.7 percent, compared with 2.8 percent for the state's multipurpose general obligation bonds sold a week later.
But the certificates bear the name of the state of Minnesota, and keeping that name good in the eyes of investors is crucial to the state's ability to finance public works at low interest rates. The certificates' purchasers have been promised repayment over the next 25 years. That money is expected to come primarily via biennial legislative appropriations. (In addition, a portion of the debt service will be derived from parking fees charged by the new building's garage.)
Yet to date, no provision for those future appropriations has been made.
That means Minnesotans likely haven't heard the last of the partisan fight over state Senate facilities, even though the building is now climbing above ground level and is scheduled to be occupied in 13 months. Annual payments for the new building, expected to be about $6 million per year, are likely to appear in the DFL-controlled Senate's operating budget, which cannot be set without the assent of the GOP-controlled House.
That's why now — with the 2014 campaign over and the fight over the next state budget not yet begun — seems a good time for Minnesotans to look anew at the scorned project in an apolitical light. We think that if they did, they would see that the new building is a sensible solution to several real problems:
• Renovation of the Capitol requires the Senate to operate elsewhere in 2016. It can't be just anywhere — not with the security, public access and broadcast demands on legislative operations. The Senate is finding it difficult even to rent office space for staffers for the last half of 2015, when no legislative session is scheduled and both the Capitol and the new building will be unavailable.
• After the renovation, the Capitol can house fewer than a third of Senate offices and only half of its hearing rooms. The Senate is losing 23,000 square feet in the Capitol to modern mechanical components and badly needed enlarged space for the governor, attorney general and public accommodations.
• A 40-year-old problem needs fixing. In the 42 years since enactment of the state's open-meeting law, public participation in legislative sessions has surged. Legislators were first granted private offices in 1975 in response. But majority senators have been scattered randomly around the Capitol, while minority senators have been housed across the street. The result has been confusion for visitors and less-than-desirable collegiality in a body whose work requires collaboration.
• Easy access to the Capitol for the disabled was not envisioned in its 1905 design. It will be provided via the new building's parking garage and tunnel to the Capitol.
This is the case that should have been made and debated in full public view before the building was authorized — ideally, with general obligation bonds whose debt service would not be subject to yearly legislative approval. But that didn't happen. The building was authorized in the 2013 tax bill via a lease-purchase arrangement that, while not unprecedented for new buildings in the Capitol complex, is unconventional and poorly understood. That arrangement's key advantage was political. It could proceed with a simple majority vote; bonding would have required a three-fifths majority, and that would have meant Republican participation.
If one were a newly elected Republican House member, one might arrive believing that the voters sent a message: Stop the Senate office building — or punish the Senate as a consequence. We hope that after looking again, voters will convey a different message: Stop playing politics with an addition to the Capitol complex that stands to enhance public access and lawmaking itself. Let this fight go.