State Capitol 'is crumbling'; who will act?

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 31, 2012 - 4:47 PM

Battle lines are being drawn over what will be a significant expenditure and disruptive project.

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Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul.

Photo: Jim Mone, Associated Press

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State Rep. Dean Urdahl gladly shows visitors the multifolded piece of paper he keeps in the drawer of his House floor desk. Tucked inside it are a few tablespoonfuls of sparkly white crushed stone, the largest pieces a half-inch in diameter.

"These are pieces of the Capitol," the Grove City Republican said almost reverently as he displayed the paper's contents last week.

Urdahl needed no knife or chisel to collect the Georgia marble chips. He finds them regularly on the balcony outside the House retiring room, on the Capitol's north side. A five-termer, he said he's been seeing small pieces of the building's exterior stone accumulate there for several years.

"There are pieces there all the time now -- some bigger than this," he said. "The Capitol is crumbling."

A Minnesota history author and former history teacher, Urdahl set out last session to do something about the deteriorating condition of Cass Gilbert's 1905 masterpiece.

The result -- a bipartisan commission's recommendation for a $241 million, four-year restoration project -- will figure prominently in the 2012 legislative session's wrap-up. The battle-weary Legislature is poised to deliver at least a partial answer to the question: What's to be done to fix the Capitol?

For Minnesotans just as weary of two years of predictable partisan tiffs, the Capitol question offers an interesting variation.

Senate Republicans and House DFLers appear loosely allied in preferring to start small and go slow. The bonding bill that's advancing in the Senate would OK just $25 million for the Capitol -- all to be spent repairing the crumbly exterior.

What about the rest of the job -- the leaky pipes, dangerous wiring, inadequate heating and cooling, poor access for the disabled, insufficient security, patchy IT links, fading murals?

"We don't think we're ready to dismantle this building," explained Senate bonding chair and Majority Leader David Senjem Friday. "We need more time to analyze what we really want" done inside.

On the other side of the Capitol battle line are Urdahl and the wily chair of the House Capital Investment Committee, Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker.

"Twenty-five million -- that's about enough for new carpet," Howes scoffed about the Senate bill. Rather than weigh down his lightweight $280 million bonding bill with the hefty Capitol project, Howes put it into a separate bill --at $220 million, almost all of it.

Howes doesn't seem the type to admit that he has a soft spot in his heart for the state's best dome -- though he's quick to note that it's the second-largest stone dome in the world. Rather, Howes makes an old-school conservative's argument for authorizing the entire Capitol project at once: It will be cheaper that way.

Construction bids are likely to be at least 12 percent higher if the entire project's financing is in doubt when bids are let, he said. "No contractor will give us a guaranteed price" unless the project is fully authorized. "You can't nickel-and-dime this thing."

Fully authorizing the project would also increase chances that it will be done in four years or less, not five or more. In this case, given the costs associated with dispersing the Capitol's functions to temporary quarters, haste does not make waste. Delay does.

Howes comes from a part of the state that does not smile on big spending. But his constituents understand that government is obliged to preserve one of its own best assets. "I don't hear any opposition to this from conservatives at home," Howes said.

But some of the conservatives who work under the Georgian marble dome want government spending -- and government borrowing -- to shrink. The Capitol's big-ticket needs get in the way of that goal.

Meanwhile, some liberal legislators want government to spend more on new projects in their districts, not a 107-year-old one in St. Paul.

Then there's that other liberal who works at the Capitol, Gov. Mark Dayton. He chaired the commission Urdahl's legislation established. He praised its conclusions in the State of the State speech and says he supports Howes's do-it-all approach. But Dayton has spent more time and political capital this year on another big-ticket project involving another Minnesota dome.

For Howes to win a big commitment to fixing the People's Palace this year, he'll need help in the next few days from people willing to contact their legislators. He could use a more visible ally in the governor's office, too.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. Follow her blog, Minnesota Matters.

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