I wish I'd been standing next to the bust of Senate Majority Leader Nicholas Coleman Friday afternoon when the House Rules Committee voted 14-13 to proceed with construction of a $77 million new office building for all 67 state senators. I think I might have heard a cheer.
The building plan that barely cleared the House Rules panel must now return to the Senate Rules Committee for final blessing. But given nearly 40 years of partisan resistance to the idea of providing suitable office space for every senator, the Senate panel would be foolish not to gratefully go along with the House's version.
A new, unified Senate office facility fixes a problem that dates to Coleman's era. Legislators didn't have offices of their own before 1975, when annual sessions, open meeting laws and more professionalization threw the institution's doors open to public participation.
Senators have been scattered in the Capitol and State Office Building since then. The arrangement is hard on citizen lobbyists, especially the elderly and disabled. It doesn't do anything positive for lawmaking efficiency or collegiality, either. The Capitol's renovation is poised to make matters worse, shrinking from 45 to 23 the number of senators that the Capitol can accommodate.
Nevertheless, the proposal to correct those problems with a new building has come under heavy partisan fire as "self-serving" and unnecessary. The plan the House Rules Committee approved is an improvement over an earlier version. It houses all 67 senators under one roof and costs nearly $17 million less, mostly because plans for an adjacent parking garage have been dropped. Still, it was no surprise that it cleared the DFL-controlled House panel with no votes to spare.
Today's legislative office space dilemma traces back to the move toward a more orderly and transparent lawmaking process. That history gives a twist of irony to the unconventional process that brought the building question to the fore this year. By choosing to launch the authorization process in the 2013 Senate tax bill rather than the capital improvements bill and skimping on hearings, the building's Senate DFL backers handed ammunition to their Republican critics.
The vetting that happened at House Rules on Friday was at least a year overdue. As a result of the analysis of alternatives conducted in public view, the 14 DFLers who voted yes can at least defend their decision with facts and figures. They point to the version the House committee approved as the most cost-effective way to fix the Senate's 40-year-old space problem.