New MN Senate building looks nice, but GOP still doesn't like it

Landscaping underway at the new Senate offices.
Landscape work is underway on the plaza level outside the new Senate office building in St. Paul.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

When it opens, the new Minnesota Senate office building will offer visitors a tall atrium with lots of glass and a lovely view of the Capitol.

Its beauty, however, is unlikely to protect it from politics.

As the project — a $76 million building and $14 million underground parking ramp — nears completion, it remains controversial. DFLers say it will improve public access to government. Republicans say it's costly, unnecessary and will be a campaign issue again. Senate Republicans are weighing whether to refuse to move into the new offices.

Construction crews, though, remain busy in most every area inside the four-story building and, during tours this week for lawmakers and reporters, it's now easy to see what the finished product will look like when senators and staff begin moving in after Jan. 1.

There are three large hearing rooms, including one that will serve as the temporary Senate chamber during the 2016 session, while renovation work continues in the Capitol. The historic Senate desks are already in place. There are offices for all 67 Senators. Lawmakers in the majority and the minority will be under the same roof. Many offices have views of the Capitol.

"The seating arrangement is very close to the one that's in the Senate chamber," said Project Manager Vic Thorstenson. "The reason for that is the room was actually shaped to be close to the Senate chamber. After next year, when it goes back to being a hearing room, it will seat about 150."

New hearing room
A large hearing room in the new Senate building will have room for up to 250 people.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Another hearing room will seat up to 250 people. House Republican leaders declined an invitation to use that room for a temporary chamber next year, and will instead cope with the limitations of the Capitol for one session.

Thorstenson said large hearing rooms and other public gathering spaces are important features that will allow for greater access to state government.

"We put a lot more effort into the public spaces in this building than in the senators' offices, and frankly it was something that we wanted," he said. "There was criticism about the building, and I think it made us work harder to make this a good building to the public. It was something we didn't want to fight. It was something we wanted to respond to in a positive way."

Republicans remain critical of the project, which they've opposed since it was passed as part of a DFL-backed tax bill at the end of the 2013 session.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said his Republicans feel that their current offices in the State Office Building are fine, and they're in no hurry to move. He wouldn't say whether his caucus might protest by refusing to move.

"Whatever it is I think we'll do it as a caucus," he said "I don't think we're going to let every individual member decide what they're going to do. We'll make some decisions about that at the right time."

Many Senators will have a view of the Capitol.
Many Senators will have a view of the Capitol from their new individual offices.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Hann is more certain about the building being a campaign issue again in 2016, when all Senate seats are on the ballot. Last year, it was an issue in the races for governor and the House. Hann said the DFL Senators who voted for the building have yet to face voters.

"I think there are a lot of people who are concerned about government waste and excess," he said. "I think to the extent that those are concerns for people, this is a great example of that kind of thing being done."

Majority Senate Democrats, who were displaced by the Capitol renovation several months ago, are more upbeat.

Senate Education Chair Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood got a tour of the building this week and picked out his preferred office locations. Wiger said the additional space is a "game changer," and he thinks the criticism of the project will soon fade.

"When I looked at the hearing rooms, a key part of the whole legislative process, I was very impressed," Wiger said. "Space, there's plenty of it. It's very accommodating. It will be much more friendly for the public, and that what this is all about."