Senate DFLers caught the attention of State Capitol lovers like us last week. A provision to pay $30 million over the next two years to continue the restoration of Cass Gilbert’s “people’s palace” popped up in a legislatively odd place — the Senate tax bill.
Also in a bill that’s otherwise laden with tax exemptions, deductions, refunds and rates is a directive to the commissioner of administration to commence design work on new “legislative office facilities,” including more parking, in the Capitol complex.
The new facilities would be financed through a lease-purchase agreement with private investors, the same financing tool used to build both the Andersen and the Freeman office buildings in the Capitol complex — and one that does not require a 60-percent supermajority vote for the Legislature to authorize.
Senate DFL leaders justify these unusual moves as a “belt-and-suspenders” safeguard against the possibility that the House will be unable to secure the requisite 81-vote supermajority. Reaching that threshold in the DFL-controlled House takes eight minority Republican votes. They could be hard to come by for the $800 million bonding package that House DFLers favor.
It’s hard to fault the Senate for looking out for one of our favorite Minnesota buildings. But it’s fair to question whether it is offering a desirable alternative.
State government’s elected stewards have been planning for years to repair the Capitol, which is literally crumbling after 108 years of heavy use. The 2012 Legislature moved beyond the planning stage. It launched a four-year reconstruction project with a $44 million down payment, financed with 20-year general obligation bonds.
That’s state government’s customary way of paying for durable public assets. Bonding spreads costs through 20 years rather than burdening today’s taxpayers with the full cost of facilities that will serve several generations. With interest rates as low as they have been in recent years, bonding is also a financially smart approach.
Legislators knew last year, and know now, that keeping the Capitol project on its anticipated course will require providing about $200 million more over the next two years, including $109 million this year. That’s the amount included in the House bonding bill.
That bill, or one akin to it, ought to become law this year. It’s warranted not only because of the Capitol, but also for the sake of other queued-up projects — Southwest Corridor light rail; convention centers in St. Cloud, Mankato and Rochester, and an upgrade at St. Peter State Hospital, to name a few. The House package includes many projects in Republican districts, offering minority legislators ample reason to support it.
Unfortunately, in the name of Capitol devotion, the Senate is giving House Republicans more reason to drag their feet or strike a harder bargain. They’re also threatening to complicate an already complex renovation. Senators confess that they chose $30 million in cash for the Capitol not because they had a workable plan for its use, but because they deem it an affordable sum. If that’s all that’s provided this year, project plans will need a costly redo.
What’s more, by adding the wrinkle of a new office building, presumably for senators, the Senate is creating suspicion that its cash-for-the-Capitol move is really an bid to improve its members’ own digs.
In fact, building a new legislative office building is an idea worth considering. The modern Capitol functions too much as a Senate office building, something Cass Gilbert never intended.
Current plans call for fewer Senate offices in the renovated Capitol as its public spaces are enlarged and mechanical systems upgraded. That will mean that the future Capitol won’t be able to house an entire Senate majority, as it has for at least four decades. Reserving the Capitol for majority and minority Senate leaders’ offices and for more ample committee and large-group meeting space is a sensible notion.
But simply popping that idea into a tax bill in the last month of a legislative session isn’t the way to convince other legislators — let alone Minnesotans — of its merit. Proponents of this idea have a lot of selling to do, and the tax conference committee isn’t the right venue for an office building sales job. The Capitol and any agreed-upon office building across University Avenue belong in a robust bonding bill.