Construction report: The white plastic sheeting came off the west side of the State Capitol last week. I stood near daffodils that have miraculously survived a heavy equipment onslaught and stared for a long moment, looking for discernible change in the familiar facade. Darned if I could see any.
The removal gave the Senate majority leader’s temporary office natural light for the first time all session. Tom Bakk reportedly didn’t like what he first saw. The retired union carpenter was said to complain that the workman outside his window was not a carpenter, as union work rules require.
On Tuesday, Capitol journalists donned hard hats, lime-green vests, gloves and safety glasses and tromped around the half-built Senate office building, the official name of which is yet to be determined. (A few sour past and present House DFLers might nominate the name “Mud.”)
The $90 million newcomer to the Capitol campus is on time and on budget for completion by the end of the year. It’s too soon to say whether its design will hit the sweet spot its political backers intended — not too fancy to be deemed luxurious, not too plain to be deemed pedestrian.
The new building will solve several chronic Capitol problems. All but a handful of state senators will be in the same building — and won’t be segregated by party. The building’s two identical office floors mandate mixing. That should serve to narrow a partisan divide that has widened greatly in the 40 years since the start of the current arrangement, which splits DFL and GOP senators’ offices into separate buildings.
For the first time, decent parking and access for the handicapped will be provided. Parking security — a serious consideration for an operation prone to late-night activity — will be enhanced by an underground garage. Senators will have lovely views of the architectural masterpiece across the street and a soothing garden in which to cool off after heated debates.
My favorite moment in the tour came as I wobbled off an exterior scaffold staircase into a large, slightly sloping space on the first floor and heard Senate project manager Vic Thorstenson say, “This is our potential House chamber.”
“If they want it,” an unidentified pundit chimed in. Mortenson Construction senior superintendent and tour leader Rich Bistodeau announced that we had entered “Hearing Room Number One.”
It’s a room unlike any other in the Capitol complex — a multipurpose, theater-style auditorium that will comfortably seat 250 people. No existing hearing room offers that capacity. Only the aforementioned House chamber comes close.
Where the House will do business in 2016 has been a sensitive question ever since authorization for a new Senate building popped into the 2013 DFL-crafted Senate tax bill. The Capitol’s reconstruction will be at full throttle in 2016, the carpenter who leads the Senate majority explained then. The Legislature will have to vacate the premises. He graciously offered Bakk’s Building as swing space for the temporarily homeless House. Design documents dated November 2013 show the auditorium labeled “House chamber.”
Nothing doing, said House folk. The deal that the House Rules Committee struck in 2014 made construction of the new Senate building contingent on keeping the Capitol available for House use in the 2016 session.
That’s the plan and we’re sticking to it, House Speaker Kurt Daudt told me after the tour. He dismissed any suggestion that a move to the new Senate space would make sense as merely “Sen. Bakk trying to prove that that building was needed.”
But Bakk’s initials are not on a memo issued last week by the state Department of Construction, er, Administration. It explained that the Capitol project would be $500,000 ahead if the House finds somewhere else to go next year.
What’s more, the House will spare itself discomfort. To wit: “No operating restrooms or running water” will be available in the Capitol in 2016. “Heating and cooling systems serving the House chamber will not be complete. … Construction activity will be at its peak. … Restoration schedule does not anticipate work stoppages to accommodate House floor sessions.” Images were conjured of parka-clad state reps scurrying from their chilly chamber to outdoor portapotties in January.
The memo helpfully went on to analyze two oft-cited alternatives for the House. One is the St. Paul Armory, down Capitol hill and outside the winter-popular tunnel that connects Capitol buildings. At $500,000 to convert to House use, that’s not a cost-saving option.
The other: the new Senate office building. It’s tunnel-accessible, convenient to the Senate (which plans to meet in a smaller hearing room right next door), commodious for visitors, and ready for broadcast and IT connections. Still, it would need some adaptation for House use, and that would cost about $300,000, the memo said.
In other words, moving in with the Senate would save taxpayers $200,000. But it would come with a political downside. How could the same House Republicans who railed against the “unnecessary” Senate office building in the 2014 election make it their 2016 home?
But if they button up their overcoats and stay put, how will those fiscally conservative Republicans like hearing from their DFL challengers in 2016 that their stubborn refusal to leave the Capitol cost the taxpayers “hundreds of thousands of dollars?”
House Republicans showed last week that they are willing to carry their opposition to the new building so far as to omit its debt service from their 2016-17 state budget. But are they willing to carry it so far that they put themselves at political risk? As House members of both parties have learned to their sorrow in recent election cycles, it is possible to press a partisan point — even a popular one — too hard.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at email@example.com.