If Minnesota senators want a new office building, they may need to convince their colleagues over in the House.
The proposed $90 million office building and parking facility hinges on the approval of the House Rules Committee.
It's a great deal of money and committee members had a great number of questions at their first hearing on the subject Thursday night: Why was the project included in a tax bill conference committee report at the end of session, instead of working its way through the usual series of public hearings? Why do plans for the $63 million office building only have office space for 44 of the 67 Senators, while the rest will remain in offices in the crowded Capitol across the street? Would it be possible to scrap plans for a new office building and simply rehouse senators in an existing state office building?
But on one topic, most of the state Representatives seemed to agree: If the Legislature shells out millions of dollars for a new Senate office building, Senators should move into it. All of them.
"I've heard both from Democrats and Republicans a fair amount of skepticism and also, I think, a lot of alignment around the idea that if the building is to proceed, that there should be 67 senators in that building, or 67 offices, even if the senators aren't all in them to start," said House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, who chairs the Rules Committee. "I think we have a question before us that needs some thought."
The informational hearing concluded without a vote from the committee members.
House Republicans have been vocal critics of the project. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt took to the House floor Thursday to criticize the process that wrapped plans for the Senate office building into the $2.1 billion tax ominbus in the final days of the 2013 session.
"Here we are. Democrats in St. Paul are about to spend between $60- and $90 million dollars of taxpayers' hard-earned money to build themselves an office building," Daudt said. "This looks horrible."
The Senate Rules Committee has already approved plans for the new office facility, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has warned that delaying construction of the new office could hamper the $272 million restoration project now undeway at the century-old State Capitol. Those plans were drafted with the assumption that senators would shift out of the Capitol and into the new offices midway through the renovation project.
The Minnesota Department of Administration has estimated it would cost between $2.4 million and $2.9 million a year to rent temporary office space for senators, and tens of millions of dollars more in to retrofit them, if the new office building is not built. Senators and staff will need at least 135,000 square feet of space near the Capitol during the renovation. Moreover, the renovations will carve into the office space the Senate currently holds in the Capitol.