There's a strong case for a new state Senate building

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 26, 2014 - 6:34 PM

Process aside, there are numerous reasons to build now.

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This design proposal depicted a five-story structure for the state Senate with high windows looking out toward the Capitol and a glass-enclosed walkway. The building would house new offices and hearing rooms.

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The Minnesota House Rules Committee is set to do something on Thursday that should have been done a year ago — publicly hear the case for and against construction of a $63 million Senate office building across University Avenue from the Capitol in St. Paul.

The delay represents no dereliction of duty on the part of the 2013 House. Rather, it is the consequence of the unusual procedure the Senate engineered to authorize the new building. Its green light was tucked into the 2013 tax bill in a way that gave most House members and Gov. Mark Dayton little opportunity to question or remove it.

That procedure makes this year’s House Rules Committee the new building’s final permission step before construction, unless a lawsuit to stop the building filed by former GOP Rep. Jim Knoblach of St. Cloud succeeds on appeal. A Ramsey County District Court judge turned thumbs down on Knoblach’s arguments earlier this month.

House members — and fans of regular order and transparency in lawmaking, including this newspaper — have reason to dislike the way the proposed building came to this point. But Rules Committee members should spend little time grumbling about procedure. A decision on the project’s merits is urgent. The committee should bore into the case for the building to determine whether it serves the public’s need for an accessible and functional legislative branch of government for the next several generations — at a reasonable cost.

We think it does. Here’s why:

• The Capitol can no longer be the primary Senate office building — not under the current reconstruction scheme. The four-year reconstruction of the 109-year-old “people’s palace” that’s now in year two will permanently deprive the Senate of 23,000 square feet of space. That shrinks the maximum number of Senate offices in that building to 23 — and that may be too many for a building whose primary purpose is public gatherings, not private offices.

That means that the practice of the past 40 years of housing the entire Senate majority caucus — 34 or more senators — under the marble dome must end. Where should they go?

• The existing State Office Building cannot reasonably house more senators. It’s not functioning well with the Senate minority offices it contains now. House leaders say their operations are too crowded on the House’s three floors of the 1932 building.

In addition, separating the Senate majority and minority offices has been an impediment to bipartisan lawmaking. An authority as notable as 22-year Majority Leader Roger Moe has long argued that majority and minority offices should be in proximity and that the Senate’s prized Capitol space should be assigned on the basis of seniority, not party.

• Minnesota citizens should be able to conveniently meet with their legislators. That should be a guiding principle in deciding what to do with Senate offices. It augurs against scattering senators in several buildings or moving them farther from the Capitol and the State Office Building.

• A new Senate building solves the 2016 problem — if it’s built soon. In 2016, the final year of restoration, the Capitol will be unavailable for public use. Both the House and Senate will need alternative spaces for floor sessions — rooms big enough not only for 67 senators and 134 representatives, but also for staff support, electronic voting and recording equipment, the news media and public viewing.

The proposed building would offer suitable space in two large first-floor hearing rooms. If the building is not built, leased space will need to be found and retrofitted, at substantial one-time cost and no long-term gain. By comparison, money spent to operate the 2016 session in a new Senate building will leave the state with a useful facility for decades to come.

For a new building to play the 2016 swing-space role, quick action is needed in the House. Construction must begin this spring.

• If House Rules members agree that the case for a new Senate building is sound, their due diligence is not done. They should also review its cost and design, and question the number of senators proposed to occupy it.

The Capitol complex has one “people’s palace.” It does not need another. Reflecting pools, marble floors and posh spas don’t belong in a new building. But the complex already contains unfortunate examples of undistinguished buildings erected on the cheap. Any addition should complement rather than detract from Cass Gilbert’s masterpiece.

House members also know from personal experience that the public’s interests are served when an entire chamber’s offices are under one roof. The Rules Committee should ask whether plans for only 44 of 67 senators to occupy a new building were made to serve the public’s interests or senators’ personal preferences. The latter should not drive this decision.

  • The proposal

    The Senate Office Building proposal envisions:

    • A $63 million price tag, financed under a lease-purchase agreement.

    • 155,000 square feet (the Capitol complex’s third-smallest building).

    • Two large hearing rooms, suitable for 2016 floor sessions.

    • Offices for 44 of 67 state senators.

    • A $27 million parking facility.

    • Improved access to the entire Capitol complex for the disabled.

    • An 18-month construction period.

    Source: Office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk

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