A controversial $90 million complex that would house Minnesota state senators moved closer to construction Wednesday, but not without a partisan struggle.
DFLers on the Senate Rules Committee pushed the proposal through on a 7-5 vote over the objection of Republicans, who say the project is too costly and never went through proper public hearings.
“All I can do is express my frustration that this is the first time I’m aware of that there has been any kind of public hearing, and the public has had no input to weigh in on this at all,” said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, whose motions to delay the vote failed. “This, to me, has just been an ugly, ugly process.”
However, an official overseeing the project cautioned committee members that a delay in construction of the glass and concrete structure would leave tenants of the Capitol with nowhere to go as the historic building undergoes a restoration set for completion in 2017.
“If the new building doesn’t happen, there’s not available space in state-owned buildings on the Capitol campus and we’ll be looking to lease outside,” said Wayne Waslaski, senior director for real estate and construction services for the Department of Administration. “Trying to recoup that cost over a two-year period will cost multiple millions of dollars.”
Waslaski noted that studies on Capitol renovation dating back 14 years have pointed out the need for a new building. “The space issue was always out there,” he said.
The $63 million building and adjoining $27 million parking facilities drew fire after being included at the last minute in the 2013 legislative session tax bill — unusual for construction projects, which typically are part of the bonding bill. Republicans have been sharply critical of what they consider the building’s opulent design and only 44 offices. Proponents have said the building is badly needed to ease the crowded conditions in the Capitol, which houses only senators of the majority party. Minority party senators and House members reside in the nearby State Office Building. The new building would allow leaders of both parties to maintain offices in the Capitol, with remaining senators of both parties being housed in the new Senate Office Building, scheduled for completion in June 2015.
Former state Rep. Jim Knoblach, a Republican, has filed a lawsuit to halt construction of the building because it was funded through the tax bill instead of the bonding bill. A hearing is scheduled for next week.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk on Wednesday emphasized how closely the building’s construction is linked to the Capitol renovation.
As the Capitol is redesigned, he said, 23,000 feet must be cordoned off for health and safety issues, while the governor and House also want more space.
“The final plan of what the Capitol is going to look like is totally contingent on this new building,” said Bakk, DFL-Cook.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said the minority party, which supported Capitol restoration, was never informed of the close ties between the two projects.
“When you say Capitol restoration, you’re also saying, in effect, voting for another building,” Hann said. “Now it seems like if we don’t do this, we’re going to have a big problem and we don’t have contingency plans.”
Because the project was attached to the tax bill, it needs only a simple majority to pass, and not the supermajority required of bonding projects that would have necessitated a bloc of Republican votes.
The bill goes next to the House Rules Committee.