Senate building delay could prove costly

Scale model
A scale model of the planned Senate office building. Lawmakers agreed to build an office building and two parking ramps near the State Capitol as part of last session's tax bill.
Tim Pugmire/MPR News

Any delay in a decision to fund a new office building for Minnesota State Senators and their staff members could result in cost overruns on the entire State Capitol renovation project, the official in charge of the project warned Monday.

House Democrats haven't yet held a hearing on funding for the proposed $63 million Senate Office Building and a $27 million parking garage.

The current schedule for the Capitol renovation depends on the new Senate building. Construction is expected to start this spring with a goal of completing it by 2015. The plan is for about 16 senators, staffers and others to move from offices in the Capitol into the new building across the street. That move would then free up space for the renovation of the Capitol.

"To achieve a December 2016 opening for completion for Capitol restoration, you really have to keep moving with the current plan," said Wayne Waslaski, who is in charge of Capitol renovation. "If you have to step back and do redesign work then you're changing both the schedule and the cost for the Capitol restoration."

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Waslaski said even a delay of one month would be costly, but couldn't say exactly how much it would cost taxpayers if the funding is delayed.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said he's unwilling to give up any space in the Capitol if the Senate office building is not finished on schedule.

"If that falls apart because the new building falls apart, I predict there will be tens of millions of dollars of cost overruns in the Capitol renovations because the two projects are so closely linked," Bakk said. "They really will have to go back to the drawing board of what the new Capitol is going to look like based on the current space allocation agreement."

Bakk said during Monday's Capitol Preservation Committee meeting that he wished Republicans would stop making the new building a partisan issue. But that may prove difficult. Governor Dayton signed the tax bill into law last year that included funding for the new building.

Since then, Republicans have characterized the building as a palace for politicians. They also questioned why the new building is even needed.

Republican Rep. Matt Dean told reporters that he's concerned how the project was funded in the first place.

"People have difficulty with that building across the street," Dean said. "They embrace this building. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out and it's going to cause problems for people. You have to stand behind your votes. The people who voted for this in the tax bill are going to have to stand up and say 'Yeah, I supported that."

Monday's announcement creates a dilemma for House Democrats who are uneasy about the new building: They must choose between voting for a new Senate building and being blamed for building it, or delaying the vote and being blamed for cost overruns for the Capitol renovation.

DFL House Majority Leader Erin Murphy intends to hold an informational hearing on the plan at the end of February. But she says the House Rules Committee will not vote on the measure during that hearing. Murphy didn't commit to when the committee will vote on the plan.

"It is important for us to take our time and make a good decision," she said. "I'm not feeling a particular amount of pressure right now on time. I understand that those deeply involved with this question would like to move and I appreciate their perspective, but it is important that we take our time and make a well informed decision."