ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota lawmakers heard warnings Monday that they must make a final decision within weeks on a disputed Senate Office Building or a related renovation of the state Capitol will cost more and take longer.
A hoped-for March groundbreaking for the proposed $63 million office building already has been pushed back at least a month amid political jockeying over its merits, design and cost. It is closely linked to the Capitol work because designs for that remodeling were based on senators relinquishing space they now have for offices and hearing rooms. Final legislative consent rests with a House committee, which hasn't scheduled a vote.
"If things change, we will be back to square one," said architect David Hart, the main consultant on the $272 million Capitol renovation that has already begun. "It throws everything up in the air."
With control of the House at stake this fall, Republicans have been casting the Senate building as too lavish and criticizing majority party Democrats for authorizing it. The vote by the House Rules Committee, which includes some members in swing districts, would give the GOP more ammunition.
"The public is reacting to it because they don't understand it and they don't understand the need for it," said Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood. "Flags are going up."
House Majority Leader Erin Murphy of St. Paul said Democratic leaders in her chamber have concerns about the Senate building and wouldn't commit to a swift vote. She said an informational hearing will be held "to discuss the current proposal and consider other options for Senate office space during and after the Capitol renovation process, such as whether leasing existing office space makes sense."
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the alternative to a new Senate building is less space for the public to gather and otherwise have free access to when visiting the Capitol. Without it, he said the Senate would gobble up room for offices.
"Some of the partisanship has to be taken out of this," he said. "Shame on us if we miss this opportunity."
The prospect of delays or added costs to the widely supported Capitol renovation only complicates the House vote, which Hart and his associates say needs to happen by the end of February. If all goes as planned, repairs and remodeling of the 108-year-old Capitol should conclude by December 2016.
Wayne Waslaski, who is involved in both projects for the Department of Administration, said the schedule is based on senators leaving by June 2015 when their new building is set to open. In 2016, the Senate is supposed to hold sessions in the new space while work is done around the permanent Capitol chamber. In all, the building will house 44 of the 67 senators, with leaders and committee chairs from both parties eventually returning to the Capitol.
A separate parking complex has added another $27 million to the project's price tag.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who signed the bill that allowed for the new building, has since directed his departments to look into scaling back the cost and amenities. Waslaski said that changes to the initial design were made so it is not "opulent" but the total budget hasn't moved.
"We were following the governors' and others' direction that it should be a modest design. We think the current design reflects that," he said.