Plan to punish Science Museum contractors ditched

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Science Museum of Minnesota
Lawmakers are debating whether to provide $13 million to help the Science Museum of Minnesota fix moisture problems. Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

UPDATED 12 p.m. with Senate vote to remove clause

Minnesota lawmakers abandoned an effort Thursday to punish companies that designed and built the Science Museum of Minnesota, which has experienced severe and pricey water-intrusion problems dating back to the time it opened 17 years ago.

The museum is seeking $13 million in state bonding help toward repairs that are due to cost twice that much. The Senate's bonding bill, which was up for a floor vote Thursday, includes the allocation. Since Monday the bill had language that would make three architectural and construction firms ineligible for any publicly financed construction projects in the future. That clause was removed Thursday on a voice vote.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, led the charge to pull the provision from the bill, arguing it was a legislative overreach and a bad precedent. He said there are other mechanisms in place to remove contractors from being eligible for public work.

"This would be analogous to having a murder case where you've got three potential murder suspects. You're pretty sure one of those three was involved but you're no idea which one of them did it, so you decide to just hang all of them," Latz said. "That's what this does. That's what this provision does. It effectively hangs every one of these contractors because it bans them forever, in perpetuity, forever, from participating in contracts involving state dollars."

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said during a committee hearing Wednesday that the provision was a way for the Legislature to show its frustration for how the ordeal played out.

"This was not a natural disaster that happened to the Science Museum. It's certainly isn't the fault of the state of Minnesota that's being asked to pony up $13 million. It's not the fault of the Science Museum unless you blame them for the architecture firm they hired," Pappas said. "No one is being held accountable here for bad design or bad construction strategies or whatever, except the state of Minnesota and the private donors that are going to have to provide help for the repairs instead of for the Science Museum ongoing programming for people of Minnesota."

Moisture problems linger behind the Science Museum walls, caused by water intrusion problems that began shortly after the $100 million museum opened in 1999. Some repairs were covered by warranty. Crews didn't uncover the extent of the damage  until a third-party engineering review was done in 2012.

The Science Museum had sued over poor workmanship, but the lawsuit was dismissed because a 10-year statute of limitations had run out. The three named companies in the bill are PCL Construction Services, design firm AECOM and masonry company B&D Associates, Inc., all of which were directly involved in the museum's construction or acquired companies that were.

Latz had tried to strip out the provision on Wednesday during a Senate Finance Committee meeting. He failed then.

The disputed measure was crafted by Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. He said it's premature to say whether the ban would withstand judicial scrutiny.

"I am very unhappy with the fact that the people in the state of Minnesota, including my constituents in cornfield country, are going to have to pony up $13 million to fix this problem, while at the same time the Science Museum has to match it," Newman said.

He said he has been heavily lobbied to back down but is bothered by all of the finger-pointing.

"Liability isn't the issue. I don't care whose fault this is. I care about the fact that our constituents are going to have to fix the problem they created," Newman said. "I do not believe it's the Science Museum's fault."

Rob Smith of PCL Construction Services said the prohibition is unfair because some of the museum's contractors sought to help solve the problem.

"We actually reached an agreement to settle with the Science Museum," Smith said, adding, "From our perspective, we absolutely stepped up the plate and we resolved this issue two years ago, three years ago. You can imagine we were quite surprised to have our name thrown into an amendment like this _ something that would absolutely devastate our Minnesota business."

Smith said the terms of the prior settlement with the museum are confidential. Lawmakers pressed the museum and the company to lift the confidentiality agreement so they can consider whether enough was done.

A statewide architectural group has also opposed the measure, calling it perpetual punishment that shouldn't be tucked into a bill as it has.

The Minnesota House has yet to produce a bonding bill, so it's unclear if either the repair money will move ahead.