The Great State Capitol Office Space Debate, Part One

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 28, 2014 - 6:44 PM

It’s an easy target for Republicans. Come to think of it, they have practice at this.

Apparently the “height of arrogance” is three stories. So I learned at Thursday’s GOP news briefing at which five gubernatorial candidates and a gaggle of legislators tried to top one another’s rhetorical outrage over a proposed new Senate office building and parking facility.

A good time bashing DFL decisionmaking appeared to be had by all. Understandably so: Seldom does an issue come rolling down Capitol hill more ripe for minority-party exploitation, and more devoid of downside risk for said minority, than the Senate DFL majority’s scheme for adding a new building to the Capitol complex.

At $90 million and with expensive-looking glass walls, the proposed Senate structure makes a big fat case in point for politicians eager to argue that state government is too big (that’s Scott Honour’s mantra), has misplaced priorities (that’s Dave Thompson), wasteful (Kurt Zellers), “seedy” (Jeff Johnson) and out of touch with hard-pressed Minnesotans (Marty Seifert).

(In fact, glass is cheaper than the stone skin that’s otherwise required for Capitol complex buildings.)

The building idea originated in the Senate DFL caucus. Majority Leader Tom Bakk has been its most forceful and formidable proponent. Gov. Mark Dayton faulted the original design for lavish features. The House Rules Committee, which must sign off on the building, has yet to act.

But Dayton’s signature is on the 2013 tax bill that got the plan rolling. Dayton is on the 2014 ballot; Bakk is not. Hence the subject line on Thursday’s GOP news release: “Dayton’s Palace.”

Each Republican candidate for governor vowed that if elected, he will do what can be done to stop the proposed building. Which, by January 2015, likely will be nothing. Either the building will be half-built by then or the idea will have been abandoned months earlier because the senior House DFLers who serve on the House Rules Committee got cold feet and told the Senate to look somewhere else for the 20-some offices they’re now slated to lose to Capitol renovation.

In an election year, cold feet can be epidemic at the Capitol, even as temperatures rise outside. Maybe DFL senators should send their House compatriots a gift of warm socks.

It’s easy for Republicans to say the new building should be nixed. At least in the near term, they don’t have to live with the consequences. None of them stand to be squeezed out of the Capitol by its reconstruction. The Senate minority is housed in the circa-1932 State Office Building. Only the majority will lose offices under the current rebuilding plan.

None of the Republicans has to figure out how the Senate will conduct floor sessions or public hearings when the Capitol must be vacated in 2016, the final year of a four-year renovation of Cass Gilbert’s masterpiece. That’s the majority’s responsibility. The DFL’s hold on the state Senate is firm through 2016, when Senate terms expire.

Republicans have a ready answer for the Capitol construction cost overruns that are bound to ensue if the new Senate building is not built, or is much delayed: “It wouldn’t have happened if we were in charge.”

Who knows? They haven’t been in charge of the Senate, save for 2011-12, since the pivotal early 1970s. That’s when the modern Legislature was born with the advent of annual sessions, open meetings, publicly available bills, party designation, professional staff — and offices for legislators. If the public was to be invited in, legislators needed space in which to meet.

In 1973, about half of DFL senators had cubicles for offices. By 1975, under a deal struck by then-Speaker Martin Sabo and the late Senate Majority Leader Nicholas Coleman, the State Office Building became, in essence, the House office building — with minority senators consigned to humble quarters in the first floor and basement. Majority senators got the high-ceilinged splendor and oddly scattered spaces in the Capitol. State agencies got the boot, leading to a latter-day building boom.

From the start, this was acknowledged to be a less-than-desirable arrangement — or so I learned from legendary former Capitol reporter and Gov. Rudy Perpich biographer Betty Wilson. She kindly shared her file on the original Great Senate Office Debate.

In 1977, Coleman pushed for a $35 million office/hearing/parking facility for the Senate, to be built under the Capitol mall. The underground part was classic Perpich, who didn’t want to impair anyone’s view of the Capitol.

Independent-Republicans were agin’ it. Party chair Chuck Slocum called the project “the Perpich-Coleman-Sabo Memorial Office Building,” a “political mausoleum” for DFL leaders. Former GOP Gov. Harold LeVander called it a “gopher hole in front of the Capitol.”

The idea died. And Republicans picked up 32 seats in the 1978 election. That likely had more do to with voter unhappiness with self-appointed U.S. Sen. Wendell Anderson than legislative plans to burrow underground. But it killed the notion of building more Senate space for the next 35 years — to the enduring inconvenience of the more than 1,000 citizens and lobbyists who come to the Capitol each day during sessions and struggle to find their senators, let alone a parking place, a table in the Capitol cafeteria or a women’s restroom.

The needs of those visitors — not senators’ motives, comfort or architectural tastes — should drive the resolution of this year’s Senate office debate.

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