That Senate office building has a bull's-eye painted on it

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 15, 2014 - 6:54 PM

That said, it’s likely to withstand any arrows opponents fling.

It must be a mite irritating to Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL state House candidates to be taking a heavy partisan shelling over the new state Senate office building while its chief perpetrators — DFL state Senate leaders — aren’t on the ballot and are otherwise scarce.

OK, make that more than a mite.

If anything, Republican shots at the new building intensified after last Tuesday’s primary settled the GOP slate for the Nov. 4 election. GOP gubernatorial nominee Jeff Johnson said at a morning-after briefing for Capitol reporters that if elected, he would “absolutely” try to stop its construction.

That would be a tough promise to keep, given that the state has signed a binding contract with Mortenson Construction Co.; that there’s already a hole in the ground where the $90 million building will rise, and that the renovation of the Capitol would likely be delayed at least a year if the building is scrapped, adding tens of millions of dollars to that project’s cost. Then there’s the little matter of deciding where the Senate will be housed post-renovation in a Capitol with fewer Senate offices — and at what cost. And where the Legislature will meet in 2016, when the Capitol will be closed for construction.

Johnson likely knows all of that, which would explain his quick caveat: “It’s going to depend somewhat on how far along we are, as to whether you fill the hole or you finish it and then decide what to do with it.”

But he made clear that Republicans won’t let up on the pounding they are giving DFLers for the new building.

“That is an issue that seems to unite every Minnesotan, save for maybe one or two who happen to work over here. They think it is a phenomenal waste of taxpayer dollars and a terrible priority for spending for the state. … It’s a pretty important symbol of where the priorities are, with all-DFL control.”

It is indeed important — to Republican candidates. An improving economy and popular DFL moves like a minimum-wage increase and all-day kindergarten have clipped the GOP list of talking points. But it’s never hard to gin up suspicion of too much power in too few hands, or outrage over self-dealing at the public’s expense.

Rather than seeking a DFL rebuttal from Dayton, who faulted an early proposal for its posh features, and House members, who still sputter about being denied a clean vote on the Senate project, I decided to flush Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk out of the weeds.

Those weeds turned out to be in Anchorage, Alaska, where he was attending a meeting of the Council of State Governments.

(An aside: Think not that Bakk’s participation in national organizations like that one is self-dealing. Minnesota has a better-functioning Legislature today because beginning in the 1960s, legislators have brought home best-practices ideas from such groups. Next week, the National Conference of State Legislatures will conduct its 40th-anniversary meeting in Minneapolis. It will honor one of its founders, former Minnesota House Speaker Martin Sabo, on Tuesday.)

Bakk and the Senate are in the middle of four-year terms. But he said he’s willing to stump the state for other DFLers with an emphatic message: “We could not renovate the Capitol without adding a building for the Senate.”

By his telling, the reason the Capitol was allowed to deteriorate to the point of crumbling (check out the fallen marble chunks at the Senate’s State Fair booth) is that previous Legislatures were unwilling to address the Senate’s space needs. The first failed attempt was in 1977, just two years after every legislator was granted his/her own office.

The current attempt likely would have failed, too, Bakk thinks, if he hadn’t found a way to squeeze approval for a new building into the 2013 omnibus tax bill.

The Senate will lose 38,000 square feet of Capitol space in the renovation. Most of that will go to enlarged public spaces, including (for the first time) sufficient restrooms and space for orientation sessions for school tours. More will go to mechanical upgrades, the governor and attorney general’s offices, the Historical Society and the Minnesota House. Leaders and caucuses of both parties are expected to have meeting space near both chambers.

Did it have to be so? No. The renovation designers could have been instructed to plan Capitol offices for all 67 senators and the Senate’s 200 staffers, most of whom are year-round employees. But that would make it a place original architect Cass Gilbert would not recognize and that 21st-century Minnesotans probably wouldn’t much like. The Capitol ought to be a place of beautiful public spaces, not a warren of private cubicles.

Bakk’s words may have some campaign value to DFLers. But he should say one thing more. He should announce that every senator’s office will move into the new building — something he’s loath to do.

The House Rules Committee had good reasons for altering the Senate’s original building plans to include all 67 senators’ offices. Putting that chamber under one roof ends the “where’s my senator?” confusion that has annoyed visitors for 40 years. It allows for more interaction among senators, which would be a plus for the lawmaking enterprise. It puts the Senate and House on similar footing with regard to Capitol use, eliminating a source of interchamber irritation.

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