A new office building for state senators is rising quickly from the ground across the street from the State Capitol and is on track for completion this year, but political controversy surrounding its construction continues to reverberate at the Legislature.
“It’s one gorgeous view,” Rich Bistodeau, senior superintendent for construction firm Mortenson Construction, said Tuesday during a media tour of the building site. Bistodeau was standing on the third floor looking toward the Capitol in the foreground, and a sweeping vista of St. Paul in the background. “If you look to the southeast you can see a glimpse of the Mississippi River.”
The sounds of hammers and saws and smells of fresh paint permeated the building’s shell at the corner of University Avenue and Park Street, with an average of 200 workers on site every day. Even as progress on the $90 million building and attached parking ramp continues, ongoing costs related to the construction have become a sticking point between Democrats who control the state Senate and the Republican House majority.
“I completely disagree that the citizens of Minnesota expect us to be spending their tax dollars on an office building for politicians,” said Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, chairwoman of the House State Government Finance Committee. “I think that message was heard loud and clear in the last election, and I think that we need to honor the wishes of the people of Minnesota and not have that as part of our budget.”
Anderson is chief sponsor of the House budget bill that funds state operations, which includes not a single state dollar to cover costs related to the new building. However, the state Senate in its state government budget bill this week included $13 million in the next two years for the Senate to lease the building from the state, and $8 million a year after that. Those lease payments would go toward paying off debt incurred on state bonds used to fund the building.
“I actually don’t think providing the money for the debt service for the new building is all that problematic,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who has been the project’s main champion at the Capitol. “The state has sold the bonds, we have an obligation to pay them, and if anybody around here thinks we’re not going to appropriate money for those bonds, they’re going to put the state’s credit rating at risk.”
The building has been a source of political trouble for DFLers ever since Bakk inserted it for approval into a broad tax bill that passed on the last night of the 2013 legislative session. Republicans have been relentless in their criticism, and many GOP lawmakers believe that keeping up a drumbeat of attacks during last fall’s campaign was a factor in Republicans seizing the House majority from the DFL.
Bakk defends the new building as necessary, given that the Senate is surrendering a large amount of space in the Capitol building, which is in the midst of a lengthy, $300 million renovation project. All or most of the state’s 67 senators will have offices in the new building, which also will house Senate employees, and several large public hearing rooms, including a 250-seater that will be considerably bigger than any hearing room on the Capitol campus.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has derided it frequently as a “luxury office building.” Daudt said this week that DFL senators would have to make a strong public case for the funds they’ve proposed to pay for ongoing costs of the building.
Greg Huber, the senior project manager, disputed Daudt’s description.
“It’s really built with durability in mind,” Huber said. The building will have an exterior of Minnesota-mined Kasota limestone, and bones of recycled steel that are derived partly from Iron Range taconite. Unlike some of the drab utilitarian office buildings on the Capitol campus, the new building will have a curved front, a soaring foyer and a plaza with green space and close-up Capitol building views.
“We look at it as Minnesota people building a Minnesota building,” Huber said. “It could be here 100 years.”