Key win for $90M Senate building finance package

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

A new office building for the Minnesota Senate is one court ruling away from becoming reality after a state Senate committee approved financing for the proposed $90 million building Monday night.

The vote ends several months of partisan battles that will likely continue through the 2014 campaign. Republicans have questioned the need for the building and say the timing of Monday's vote is linked to another major issue at the Capitol.

After nearly a year of partisan attacks, financing concerns from their House counterparts and a broadside from Gov. Mark Dayton, Senate DFLers finally got approval for the new Senate Office building on an 8-5 party line vote in the Senate Rules Committee.

The plan relies on $77 million in taxpayer money. Another $13 million in parking fees will pay for the rest of the project. DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, who has been the biggest backer of the building, said the only thing standing in the way of construction is a pending court challenge.

"I believe that the design work is going to proceed and has been going on despite the lawsuit. I do believe that once the lawsuit is resolved, the building will be ready for construction," Bakk said. He's been pushing for approval for the building because the renovation of the state Capitol will result in less space for Senators and staff.

The lawsuit was filed by a former state representative who contends the building should not have been included in the 2013 tax bill. A district court judge dismissed the suit, but an appeal is pending.

An official with the Department of Administration says construction is slated to start on July 1.

Republicans, who have repeatedly objected to the cost of the building, spent a large part of the hearing questioning the need for the building. Republican Senate Minority Leader David Hann says Democrats rammed the financing of the building through without any GOP support.

"This is all being driven by the DFL majorities in the House and the Senate and the governor to do this," he said. "It just doesn't make any sense. Why you would want to do this major restoration and build a new building and do that on a partisan basis? Why you would want to do this is a mystery to me. But they always had the votes to do whatever they want to do. Apparently they want to do this."

But Democrats haven't always agreed on the building. House Democrats delayed signing off on the design for several months -- questioning the overall cost. The disagreement became public last month when Dayton said Senate Democrats were holding a tax cut bill hostage until House Democrats approved the building. Senate Democrats relented and voted for the tax bill.

Now, Republicans are questioning the timing of the building's approval. On Friday, the House Rules Committee approved it after insisting the complex include an office for every Senator and added the parking fees to lower the cost to taxpayers. Just three days later, House and Senate DFLers announced that they had brokered a deal on a minimum wage increase after a 12 month impasse. That deal increases the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2016 and starts indexing the wage to inflation beginning in 2018.

Republican Rep. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove, who is running for governor, said he thinks DFL legislative leaders cut the minimum wage deal only after the House approved the office building.

"The problem with what we're seeing here today is the ugly side of politics," Zellers said. "Horse trading at the end of session for political favors for political partners on one rule, one party government at the expense of new workers, border communities and careers in Minnesota."

DFL legislative leaders say there's no link between the office building and the minimum wage deal. DFL House Speaker Paul Thissen said House Democrats acted on the building as soon as they got additional information on the project. He also said legislative leaders are working on a number of issues this session and are acting on them as soon as they can agree.

"I don't think that's particularly fair to say, no," Thissen said. "We knew that we had to get these issues done and the timing just happened to work out this way."

House Democrats are preparing for an onslaught of criticism over the office building in the coming months. Republicans have already made it a campaign issue. And voters will have to decide whether Dayton and House DFLers will still be in power when the building is completed in 2016.