Minnesota Capitol overhaul pulls the plug on television coverage

State broadcasting and interactive services are a casualty for now of multimillion dollar overhaul.

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Workers have closed off most of the wings of the State Capitol from the Rotunda with drywall and temporary steel supports as renovation on the top three floors gears up.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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The massive overhaul of the Minnesota Capitol means at least a temporary television blackout for Minnesotans who want to watch their elected officials at work.

Once the Legislature went home in May, the House stopped broadcasting from the Capitol. This summer, the Senate’s television and Internet feed went dark.

“Anybody that lives in St. Paul or the Twin Cities has an easier chance to come over and take part in a legislative activity. If you are out in Biwabik or Thief River Falls or Marshall, it’s not realistic that you can attend hearings on a regular basis. We provide that interaction,” said Barry LaGrave, director of House Public Information Services.

Minnesotans have grown to expect the decades-old service — tens of thousands will tune in for big televised Capitol events and thousands more will log hours online to track legislative activity.

But with both the House and the Senate media services undergoing moves of all their equipment to make way for renovation of the Capitol, that interaction has been cut off. The Capitol is in the midst of a disruptive four-year, multimillion-dollar overhaul that already has forced the governor, the attorney general and many others to find new digs.

So, when a joint House and Senate panel met to hash out the Running Aces’ racetracks’ underpayment of purses on Tuesday, no one outside the room could see the debate. Similarly, when legislators discussed key issues of the state’s controversial health insurance exchange last week, no one who hadn’t wended through the Capitol’s construction-addled Room 112 could hear the panel.

“I think it would be in everybody’s best interest to make sure that these are as accessible as possible,” said Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, who grumbled on social media about the lack of televised hearings.

Last week, the blackout caused even more consternation when it was unclear whether full services would return when lawmakers go back into full session in January.

“What we don’t know is the plans for 2015,” said Steve Senyk, director of Senate media services, early last week. As he spoke, crews were preparing the warehouse bins full of television equipment Senyk and his crew quickly dismantled to make way for Capitol construction to stay on track.

As the week drew on, the concern about the lack of services drew more heat. After some internal discussions, a deal was struck.

“In order to continue delivering this essential service, arrangements have been made for Senate Media Services to temporarily share equipment and space with House Media Services in the State Office Building during the Capitol renovation,” Senate DFL spokesman Amos Briggs said.

“It is a big relief,” Senyk said late in the week. “We now have a plan in place.”

But the House site will not be complete until mid-September or early October, LaGrave said.

That means the agreement leaves a gap of several months. During that time, lawmakers may meet in hearings and could even be called into special session to help pay for recovery costs from this summer’s devastating storms.

The timing of that special session, if it even happens, is still undecided, Gov. Mark Dayton said Monday.

But for television coverage of the House and Senate gaveling in, the timing could be key. An August gathering of lawmakers would mean Capitol decisions will not be fully streamed to the public. Later in the year, viewers will likely be able to tune in.

And they will tune in.

In the very first Senate session televised back in the late 1980s, the body was debating making the blueberry muffin the official state muffin.

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