Controversial plans for a new office building for state senators moved forward Friday, helping to resolve a politically sticky issue among DFLers at the Capitol, but also giving Republicans a talking point in this year’s election.
On Friday, the House Rules Committee narrowly approved a $77 million building across University Avenue from the Capitol on a 14-13 vote that saw one DFLer join all of the panel’s Republicans in opposing it. The House altered plans for the building that were previously approved by the Senate, chopping about $13 million from its total price tag by scrapping a parking ramp and stripping some amenities, including a fitness center, reflecting pool and elaborate landscaping.
The House also boosted the building’s square footage to include office space for all 67 senators, rather than 44 as originally planned. House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said it made little sense to build a new building for senators that wouldn’t have room for all of them.
Murphy called the revised plan “the least expensive option and the best long-term option.”
The project has been a touchy one among the Capitol’s leading DFLers. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk has been its chief booster, arguing that the building is needed in order to provide space for senators to work, hold hearings and meet the public during and after an ongoing renovation of the State Capitol. But Gov. Mark Dayton criticized the original $90 million proposal as overly lavish and said it could hurt DFL candidates in November.
House DFL leaders had been reluctant to give the project a final go-ahead. The Rules Committee’s vote Friday finally moved it forward, removing a potential obstacle that stood between DFLers and a peaceful resolution of the current legislative session.
“I commend the House Rules Committee for taking an important step to allow both the Capitol restoration project and the new Capitol office building to proceed,” Bakk said in a statement released by his office shortly after the vote. Bakk, of Cook, said he would convene a Senate Rules Committee hearing Monday to consider the changes made by the House.
Republican legislators have been harshly critical of the project, arguing it’s not needed and suggesting that it threatens to undermine what has been bipartisan support for the Capitol renovation.
“It just astounds me the level to which the DFL is tone deaf on this issue,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. Urging House DFLers to stop the project, he said: “This is the last opportunity to take an exit ramp.”
But DFLers cited studies by the state Department of Administration that showed moving senators into temporary office space during the Capitol renovation, either elsewhere on the Capitol campus or in downtown St. Paul, would be nearly as expensive as a new building, and would leave a continued space crunch in the Capitol itself once the renovation is complete.
Right now, DFLers in the Senate majority have offices in the Capitol. Minority Republicans occupy two floors in the adjacent State Office Building, which is also where House and Senate DFLers have offices. Current plans for the renovated Capitol call for handing over more space to both the governor’s office and the House. Supporters of the new building said its space is needed for senators to accommodate their constituents and to serve the public.
“This isn’t about being self-serving,” said Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter. “It’s about public service.”
The plans for the new building still must clear several hurdles before contractors can break ground. If the Senate Rules Committee signs off, the plan then heads back to a committee of state officials overseeing the renovation project. In addition, construction can’t start until final resolution of a lawsuit that’s aiming to block the building’s construction. A district judge dismissed the lawsuit, but an appeal is pending before the state Supreme Court.