Another state government building project is causing political blowback. This time, it’s an in-progress renovation of the Minnesota governor’s residence.
Governor Tim Walz and his family moved out this summer so work on the state-owned residence could begin. Now the anticipated project costs have grown substantially. Brian Bakst has been running down the details and joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer.
Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.
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BRIAN BAKST: Hi, Cathy.
CATHY WURZER: OK, what kind of work is happening at the Summit Avenue Mansion?
BRIAN BAKST: It's an exhaustive renovation, and one that's been on the drawing board for years. So exterior brickwork, replacement of the boiler and piping-- that means tearing away walls to get the old stuff out and the new wires in. There are also security upgrades, which, for obvious reasons, we don't know that much about. And as you alluded to, the project is so disruptive that they had the Walz family move out for more than a year to try to get it done as efficiently as possible.
CATHY WURZER: I know they had a renovation budget for this project. What happened to that?
BRIAN BAKST: So when I first wrote about the planned restoration in 2019, state officials were hoping to get everything done for about $3 million. It didn't move ahead then. And a few years later, that cost had doubled. And this summer, just before work got started, the department of administration figured the construction would run about $7 million.
But late last week, agency officials alerted top legislators that it would be more, much more. The latest estimate added up to about $12.8 million.
CATHY WURZER: Oh, I'm thinking that lawmakers are not too pleased with that.
BRIAN BAKST: Oh, you guessed right. Republican legislators say it's concerning to see the 80% price spike in just a few months. Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson says it's not the time to spend so much on a home used by the first family. A perk for politicians is what he called it.
But even Governor Tim Walz has reservations. His office released a statement voicing concern about the jump and said he would look to the legislature for input before the department overseeing the work makes a decision on what route to take. The department of administration did present a new plan to the governor's residence council, which is a caretaker board of sorts for the historic building. That entity signed off, with the chair of the council saying the cost is a product of years of neglect.
CATHY WURZER: So the viability of the building is at stake. Why did this new estimate, Brian, exceed the prior ones by so much?
BRIAN BAKST: The department did have to put the work out for bid, and they heard from fewer interested contractors than they anticipated. That could be because this is a specialty project, given the age and historic status of the mansion. It was first built in 1912 and donated to the state by a lumber baron's family in 1965. Officials say the deeper they got into inspections, the more they realized how much they had to replace and not just repair.
CATHY WURZER: So where's this money coming from? And does the legislature have to sign off?
BRIAN BAKST: The department is drawing from an existing facilities repair account. Legislature previously granted permission to use that on this project. And nothing would require the agency to gain explicit additional approval or authorization.
But officials are sensitive to how this might come off, so that's why they've asked for the feedback from lawmakers. DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic say that they're comfortable with the scope of work, even as Republican leaders take issue. But it's unclear if lawmakers will be asked to take a vote at any point on the bigger budget.
CATHY WURZER: There are a lot of state government construction projects in the pipeline. Where does this fit in?
BRIAN BAKST: Yeah, the state office building, which is essentially the headquarters for the Minnesota House, is about to be remodeled. That's at a cost of about $500 million. A couple of other buildings in the Capitol grounds will have work done to them soon as well. And these types of renovation projects have been used as political hammers in past political campaigns, so don't be shocked if that happens here too.
CATHY WURZER: So when might the mansion work be done and the Walz family moving back in?
BRIAN BAKST: Barring any delays, the project is due to wrap up around this time next year. Until then, the governor and his family are living at Eastcliff. That's the traditional residence for the University of Minnesota Presidents and situated along the Mississippi River. The school leased it to the state as the search for a new president proceeds there.
CATHY WURZER: Hey, another story I have to ask you about. I know you talked with the legislative auditor this morning about this review of the office of cannabis management director debacle. What's going on there?
BRIAN BAKST: So auditor Judy Randall confirmed a Star Tribune report that she's launched a preliminary inquiry into the hire and quick departure of Erin Dupree as head of the marijuana regulatory office. We've reported on issues related to her products at their CBD business and financial problems at other businesses she ran. Those came to light after Dupree was named by Governor Tim Walz last month.
Randall says she has some of the same questions that we do. Were these matters missed? Did they come up and get pushed aside? Or are there gaps in the background check process? The difference is that she can require cooperation and look at classified materials in a way we can't.
And I want to stress that this is preliminary, and it won't necessarily lead to a full blown review. But it keeps the appointment misstep in the spotlight for longer than the governor's office would like.
CATHY WURZER: All right. Brian Bakst, thank you so much.
BRIAN BAKST: You're welcome, Cathy.
CATHY WURZER: That's Brian Bakst, one of our political reporters.
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