On Legislature's opening day, Capitol remodeling makes room for debate

Pat Garofalo speaks in the 2016 session.
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, defends a bill in the House chamber as the 2016 legislative session gets underway Tuesday in St. Paul. Construction at the Capitol is placing strict limits on how many people can view the lawmakers in session.
Jim Mone | AP

Minnesota lawmakers kicked off the 2016 legislative session Tuesday under unusual circumstances that have raised questions about whether citizens will be shut out of state government.

The Republican-controlled House is meeting in its chamber as construction continues inside the Capitol. The building's renovation work has put strict limits on public viewing and press coverage. During the opening session, House Democrats complained loudly about those limits.

Legislators walked through narrow passageways separating them from the construction work to get to the House chamber. Inside, House Chaplain Richard Buller reminded them again of the difficulties ahead during his opening prayer.

"The challenges of this space for these elected leaders and their assistants and this wonderful House office staff are huge, oh God," he prayed. "So give them all a big dose of patience this Legislative session."

Their patience didn't last long.

Jason Metsa debates a bill in the new session.
Rep. Jason Metsa, D-Eveleth, questions a bill Tuesday in the House chamber.
Jim Mone | AP

Democrats took issue with the chamber's space limitations, including just 18 seats for members of the public and room for only 15 reporters. Some reporters didn't make the cut for an opening day pass. DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen of Minneapolis criticized Republican leaders for insisting on using the chamber rather than an alternative location.

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"You put a big 'do not enter' sign on the Capitol when you made the choice to meet in this building instead of a cheaper alternative in the Senate office building, where all these issues would not be a problem," he said.

DFL Rep. Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park also raised accessibility concerns.

"Only certain members of the public have access to this space," she said. "It is my understanding that a person with a physical disability would not be able to access the space we have available."

Under a city-issued temporary occupancy permit, state officials are enforcing a maximum capacity of 258 people in the Capitol. That number includes 134 legislators, House clerks, legislative staff and security. And since there's no running water, portable toilets are in place just outside.

A public viewing room for House sessions is set up in the nearby State Office Building.

Republican House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin of Rogers said everyone understands that there is limited access this session. She also insisted the building complies with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Peppin said she wasn't aware of any access problems.

"This is an argument that frankly is a lot more political than it is reality," she said. "I don't think there is any press than hasn't come in, to my knowledge. If there is, let me know. I pledge I will work with the chief sergeant."

Republican Rep. Jim Knoblach of St. Cloud said there have always been limits on how many people are allowed in the chamber.

"There's not room for a thousand reporters or maybe a smaller number to show up," he said. "It's reasonable to have some amount of limitation on just how many people are coming, if in fact we just don't have room for them."

Minnesota Senate in temporary chambers
State senators bow during the opening prayer at the temporary chamber in the new state Senate building as the 2016 legislative session got underway Tuesday. The Senate chamber in the state Capitol is undergoing restoration along with the entire Capitol.
Jim Mone | AP

Meanwhile, members of the Minnesota Senate were meeting across the street in their new $90 million office building, where a large conference room serves as a temporary Senate chamber. There were a dozen chairs for the public in a corner and additional viewing space in an adjacent hearing room.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook said the House should have also used the new building for the session.

"I think the Senate will have the same kind of public access we've had previously," Bakk said. "We worked very hard at that to make sure that was the case. I'll say it again, I'm disappointed the House didn't take us up on the chamber being here."

One reason House Republicans aren't using the Senate building is that they've made its cost a political issue. They're likely to use the issue again in this election year, and may be willing to put up with no running water for a few weeks if it helps them at the ballot box.