Key House panel OKs plan for controversial Minnesota Senate building

Capitol office building rendering
Rendering of the proposed Senate office building.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Administration

A Minnesota House panel has signed off on a modified design for a new Senate office building to be constructed near the state Capitol.

Members of the House Rules Committee authorized a plan Friday for a building with more offices, less parking and a plainer exterior than earlier versions called for. The vote was 14 to 13, with one DFL member joining Republicans in opposition. Republicans seem set to use the building as an election year issue.

Lawmakers authorized the building project in the 2013 tax bill, and Senate DFL leaders approved the original design months ago. But House leaders were reluctant to follow suit on the $93.5 million project, which would have built offices for only 44 of 67 Senators, as well as a separate parking ramp.

DFL House Majority Leader Erin Murphy of St. Paul wanted to see some alternatives first. Murphy said a modified version of the building ended up being the most cost effective approach to addressing the space issues caused by the renovation of the Capitol.

"It took us a little to get there, but we did find a path to reduce the costs and make the building as functional as possible," said Murphy. It will be a building Minnesotans can be proud of, she added. "It's going to be part of the Capitol complex for, I don't know, the next hundred years or so."

The revised plans call for a $76.8 million project and increased square footage.

The building will have offices for all 67 Senators, including those currently housed in the Capitol and those housed in the State Office Building. Mechanical systems will be relocated to the roof.

The separate parking ramp down the street won't be built right away, and the internal parking levels will be paid for through a rate hike on all Capitol complex parking fees. Architects have simplified the facades with "less articulation" and "less glass."

Those changes were not enough to change the minds of Republicans, who insist the building is extravagant and unnecessary.

GOP House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt of Crown said he thinks Democrats are tone deaf to the concerns of the public on this issue.

Democrats "trimmed the price by eliminating the public parking ramp from the project" while boosting the building's square footage, said an incredulous Daudt. "If that doesn't sound like self service over public service, I think we all need to look at our priorities."

The Department of Administration outlined other options that came with higher price tags. The list included repurposing the nearby Ford Building or administration building, using part of the Minnesota Department of Transportation building and leasing office space. But all posed potential access problems for the public.

There are access problems now for the public in the Capitol, said Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.

"You've been over there. You've seen moms and kids on the first floor trying to weigh in on legislation and find somewhere they sit and they can eat," Hortman said. Watch people try to navigate to find their senators in that building. It doesn't serve the public. This building will. It's cost effective and we should approve it."

Republicans contend the public would be better served by not building a new Senate office building.

"They don't want to see shiny new office buildings for us, because they don't want that. They don't want their tax dollars being spent on that," said Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth. "Whether the space is going to be used by the public or not, they don't want their tax dollars being used that way."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, commended Friday's House panel vote. As a result of the design changes, Senate leaders will now have to vote again on the plans. The Senate Rules Committee is set to meet on Monday.