Column: New Senate office building keeps ‘oracles’ fuming

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter

One proposed bonding project under fire is the Senate office building.

A provision for the project was contained in last year’s tax bill, exactly where it should not have been, argued former St. Cloud lawmaker Jim Knoblach, who has filed suit, claiming the language is unconstitutional.

Senate DFL leaders are sensitive about the project, recently sending out a “fact sheet” about the office building.

In it, it’s stressed that only part of the proposed $90 million price tag, $63 million, would be spent on the building. About $27 million would be spent on tunnel-level parking for people with disabilities and on a separate parking ramp to serve the Capitol complex and public.

A mock-up of the proposed building, for some reason, brings to mind a ship’s superstructure — perhaps the determined lines of a tugboat.

The building’s glassy facade gently arcs, and though old sea dogs may convulse when spotting white shimmers in the glass, it wouldn’t be ice but reflections of the state Capitol across University Avenue.

One criticism is the proposed building does not aesthetically fit into the Capitol campus. That’s in the eye of the beholder. Anyway, unless Capitol architect Cass Gilbert championed a form of aesthetic vivisection, I-94 doesn’t exactly fit either, and that didn’t stop anyone.

The proposed building, of course, is political catnip.

In a fundraising appeal, Annette Meeks, of the conservative Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, depicted the proposal as the handiwork of liberal legislators, now controlling all of state government, who snuck a pet project into a bill at the eleventh hour.

The provision, in the final tax bill, is about 80 lines long.

According to the Senate DFL leaders, during two tax bill debates last session in the Senate, no senator attempted to remove the Senate office building provision.

Meeks calls the proposed Senate office building a “legislative Taj Mahal.”

But one needs to be careful in comparing the structure to the great buildings of the past, in India or elsewhere.

For instance, the extravagant complex at Delphi, with a temple to Apollo and other ruins of ancient Greece, is spread over acres. Meanwhile, the proposed Senate office building comes in at about 155,000 square feet, the third smallest of 10 state Capitol area buildings, according to the Senate. The only similarities to the oracles of Delphi, who stood in the vapors and uttered prophecies, might be loose talk in the Senate building fitness center.

The Minnesota History Center, at 517,557 square feet, is the largest of the state buildings clustered around the Capitol.

Additional office space might have a certain appeal to Senate Republicans. Currently, the minority party senators – which, with the exception of a recent two-year hiatus, has been Republicans – are officed in the bowels of the State Office Building.

Republicans are reminded during the session of the their minority status by needing to hoof it to the Senate chamber, while Democrats, housed in the Capitol, have a much shorter walk.

The new office space could put Republicans and Democrats together in the same building, plus offer additional hearing room space. Gilbert, in designing the Capitol, didn’t include hearing rooms in his magnificent structure.

A century ago, when anyone bothered to hold a hearing, it might be held in the Capitol corridor, according to one history book.

What might the House make of all of this?

There is a certain tension between House and Senate, the former, at times, mockingly referring to senators as “the wigs,” while senators, in describing the shedding of perceived uncouthness in former House members elected to the Senate, might refer to them as being “House broken.”

The two bodies only gingerly talk of the other, as if it’s just too painful.

Adding fuel to the fire, the House is up for re-election this year. Senators are not.

According to Senate DFL leaders, state law requires the House and Senate rules committees give approval before final design and cost estimates for the Senate office building can move forward. Rule committees could take up the matter quickly, as early as this month, according to the Senate.

No bonds have yet been sold. Construction of the Senate office building could take 18 months.

Knoblach’s lawsuit is expected to be heard in Ramsey County Court on Jan. 22, Meeks said.

Lawmakers will return to the state Capitol for the next legislative session, a bonding session, in February. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton could bring out his proposed bonding bill mid-January.

 

Tim Budig can be reached at tim.budig@ecm-inc.com.

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