As new office building rises, GOP drops hammer on DFL

Senate Office Building rendering
A rendering of the proposed Senate Office Building.
Courtesy of the Department of Administration

With a legal challenge now out of the way, state officials will move forward this summer with the construction of a new office building for the Minnesota Senate.

Former Republican state Rep. Jim Knoblach of St. Cloud filed a lawsuit last year to try to stop construction of the building on the grounds that the Legislature improperly included it in a tax bill instead of a construction bill. In February, a Ramsey County judge dismissed the suit.

• Previously: Legal fight over Senate building takes new turn

When Knoblach appealed, a three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in May that he would have to post an $11 million bond for the suit to proceed. After the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed this month, Knoblach dropped the appeal.

But that hasn't stopped Republicans from hammering away at Democrats for their support of the contentious $90 million project. It's a key part of the GOP message on the campaign trail.

Republican candidates argue that the new building is unnecessary and wasteful. DFL leaders view it as a reasonable solution to a serious space shortage caused by the renovation of the State Capitol.

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Gov. Mark Dayton supports the project, even though he criticized an early design for the building as lavish and "un-Minnesotan." Dayton describes the building as integral to the Capitol restoration.

"If you don't have somewhere to put Senators during the final phase of the reconstruction of the Capitol, you don't have a functioning Legislature," Dayton said. "And if you don't have a place for them to go, you have very tight quarters and limited opportunities to use the Capitol as I believe it should be. It should be largely available to the public. It will be an issue like many other issues, and people will have to decide for themselves."

A recent KSTP poll found the public disapproval of the building at 68 percent. The four Republicans trying to unseat Dayton are making it a campaign issue, and so are their allies. The group Americans for Prosperity highlighted the issue in a new radio ad slamming Dayton.

"Let's not forget that he spent $90 million for a brand new office building for state Senators...and new offices for himself too," an announcer says in the ad. "So, Mark Dayton is building places for politicians while we struggle to make ends meet."

It's also an issue in this year's Minnesota House races. Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt of Crown said voters are rightfully upset about the building and with the Democrats who approved it.

"A good campaign issue is when somebody has done something that is obviously so out of step with what the public in Minnesota would expect," said Daudt, R-Crown. "This is really not consistent with kind of common sense Minnesota values. This really was over the top on the part of the Democrats, and ultimately I think they will pay for it on Election Day."

Democrats disagree. House Majority Leader Erin Murphy said she believes support for the building actually increases, once people learn more about the project's relationship to the renovation of the State Capitol. Murphy also downplayed its importance as a campaign issue.

"It's not coming up for Minnesotans. It's not coming up as I'm talking to our members, and they're out door knocking already," said Murphy, DFL-St. Paul. "So, I understand that the Republicans think it's an issue that they can use to drive division, and they will spend their time talking about that. "We're going to spend our time talking about the future of Minnesota."

Legislators are hearing about the issue, as state Rep. JoAnn Ward, DFL-Woodbury, did at a recent legislative town hall meeting recorded by the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, another Republican-backed group working to unseat Democrats.

"The question is, do you think a new building for senators is more important than fixing our roads?" one person asked.

Ward said the question is a good one.

"Yes, there are some downtown buildings that are vacant and potentially could be built out and rented," Ward said. "That was explored. The owners of those buildings didn't want us. The build-out would have been more expensive."

Ben Golnik, a longtime GOP strategist who chairs the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, said he thinks the building will be a big problem for DFL candidates.

He expects his organization to also highlight the office building issue in some future campaign ads.

"I think it shows irresponsible priorities or just kind of out of touch priorities. And I think it's something that we'll see continually brought up," Golnik said. "I mean the direct mail pieces or the radio or cable TV ads kind of write themselves when you have this huge new building that's designed for part-time legislators."