Senate committee signs off on new office building

The first floor of the proposed new legislative office building would include three big hearing rooms. MN Senate rendering

The Minnesota Senate Rules Committee has approved, at least in concept, a plan and a price tag for a new office building north of the Capitol. The  committee voted to approve the  plan and cost estimates  at Capitol hearing today.

The so-called “Legislative Office Building” has come under fire from all directions since it was included in the tax bill last year. Republicans say its too expensive, that it didn’t get a public airing and that its financing violates the state requirement that state debt get supermajority support in the state legislature. Some DFLers say it should be bigger.

Lawmakers are under the gun: a top-to-bottom restoration of the Capitol is going to force them out of that building altogether in the summer of 2015. The Senate is expected to lose 23,o00 square feet of office space to bathrooms, elevators and other improvements to the building planned when the restoration is complete.

The proposed new building doesn’t come cheap.  State officials put its price tag at $63 million for the building and $27 million for a  parking ramp nearby.

Senate minority leader David Hann studies building renderings. Tim Nelson/MPR News

Republicans tried to delay the approval today, with little success.

“I don’t remember  having the debate about what are what are we going to do, said Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.

“Are we going to retain the space in the Capitol for the Senate? Are we going to let it go to another building? All these things that happened, and the decision where we’re at today is we’re making a decision to proceed with a defined project,” he said.  ”And yet none of the antecedent issues were vetted in any kind of debate, or public discussion.”

But DFLers said the project was included in the tax bill and discussed on the floor of the Senate.

“Until there was talk about red herring kinds of issues that don’t even exist,” DFLer Dick Cohen, of St. Paul, said. ” The Olympic sized pool, the motion picture screening room, the sound studio. Whatever else. It wasn’t in here. But until there was talk of things that weren’t even contemplated,  it seemed that people in the Senate and other people in the government thought this would work out well for state government.”

But even Gov. Mark Dayton was sounding a cautionary note about the idea today.

“I mean, it has certainly become partisan and political and campaign oriented,” Dayton said, after unveiling his bonding proposal tat the Capitol today. “And I have had informal conversations with Majority Leader Bakk and Speaker Thissen without reaching any conclusions. But expressing my concerns about the overall cost.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said there is a little over a year for lawmakers to find somewhere else to go before they’re forced out of the Capitol entirely for renovations. And he said there are bigger political fish to fry.

“I think there are enough issues, especially in Washington D.C., that are probably going to have  impacts on this election that are much greater than any votes that are going to be taken on a building,” Bakk said.