Security in and around the State Capitol is a sober subject. Aesthetics in and around Cass Gilbert’s masterpiece matter, too, since it symbolizes much that Minnesotans value.
But we couldn’t help chortling at news that the brand-new bonding bill that appeared, then faltered in the regular legislative session’s final hour included a $7.2 million, 30-space underground Capitol parking garage. Its legislative patron was none other than Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk.
Bakk, DFL-Cook, is the very fellow who, in the final weeks of the 2013 legislative session, engineered an unusual and — at the time — little-noticed tax bill provision to authorize construction of a new Senate office building. Criticism of that less-than-transparent move became a standard talking point for Republican candidates in 2014 as the GOP wrested control of the state House from the DFL.
The bonding bill did not pass on May 18. On the strength of Bakk’s support — and likely because its authorization of a $240,000-per-space parking garage was not widely known — it won a bipartisan 54-10 vote in the Senate. But it faltered in the House in part because minority DFLers were unwilling to supply votes to achieve the supermajority a bonding bill requires for enactment.
Not surprisingly, the underground parking garage was among the reasons the once-burned House DFL caucus demurred. They had been on alert about that idea since, at a Capitol renovation committee meeting days earlier, Bakk had allowed that “senators don’t want to look at a parking lot” when they gaze across University Avenue from their new offices.
After the story broke, Bakk issued a statement. This is a matter of Capitol security, not Senate office views, he said. Further, a bond authorization does not direct bulldozers to start digging. The bill specifies that the state Department of Administration can proceed if it determines “for security purposes” that surface parking on the northwest corner of the Capitol grounds, in Lot N, should end.
Then he said what should have been said when the idea of a pricey new garage first surfaced: The new garage that’s part of the Senate office building project, due for completion later this year, could handle Lot N’s 30 cars. No new garage would then be needed to provide added security and a nicer view across University.
That’s a solution so obvious that it surely would have supplanted the new garage idea during committee scrutiny — if a committee or two had been allowed to review it. That didn’t happen. The bonding bill was riding the Legislature’s “11th-hour express.”
Minnesotans are all for Capitol security. Most probably prefer to see their Capitol without a clutter of parked cars. What they don’t like is spending public money unnecessarily. And they’re increasingly irritated by the habit of opaque lawmaking in the final rush of a legislative session. That’s a habit legislators would be well-advised to break.