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Bill Salisbury, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published April 04 2014

Minnesota House panel approves new Senate office building plan

ST. PAUL – The Minnesota Senate will likely get a new office building after all.

After holding up the controversial project for two months, the House Rules Committee on Friday approved proceeding with construction after reducing its price tag to $77 million, down from $94 million.

“It took us a little while to get there, but we did find a path to reduce the cost and make the building as functional as possible,” said House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, the St. Paul DFLer who chairs the Rules Committee.

All Republicans and many DFLers, including Gov. Mark Dayton, had criticized the cost and what some called “lavish” features of the building that the Senate Rules Committee approved in January.

That plan called for a four-story structure with a massive glass wall facing the Capitol across University Avenue. The project included a 730-stall parking ramp a block east of the new building.

At Murphy’s request, the Department of Administration drafted a new, lower-cost design that calls for less glass and more stone on the front wall, smaller Senate offices, fewer conference rooms, reduced landscaping, delaying construction of a nearby parking ramp and no reflecting pool or fitness room – two amenities senators insisted they didn’t request. In addition, a parking ramp under the building will be financed by user fees – paid mainly by senators and their staffs.

If the previous design was lavish, the new one might be characterized as utilitarian. Murphy said it would – and should – look “subservient to the Capitol.”

At the House’s insistence, the revised plan also calls for housing all 67 senators in the new building. Senators wanted 23 leaders to retain offices in the renovated Capitol while the other 44 members moved into the new building.

Murphy said House DFLers wanted to make sure the public could get access to senators in one place, rather than having to find them in scattered locations.

Currently, DFL majority senators have offices in the Capitol, and Republican minority senators are housed across the street in the State Office Building. Senators of both parties have said sharing a common building would reduce partisan divides.

“It’s awfully expensive in order for the senators to spend more time together,” Rep. Kelby Woodward, R-Belle Plaine, said of the new building.

The Rules Committee approved the project on a 14-13 vote, with all Republicans and Democratic-Farmer-Labor Rep. Ron Erhardt of Edina voting “no.”

Republicans argued the building is unnecessary and hasn’t received enough public scrutiny.

Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said people are asking him, “Why do you need a new office building if there are no more senators or representatives?”

Republicans have been harshly critical of the project for months, and Murphy said she expects them to use it against DFL candidates in November. Nonetheless, she said, “As we have gotten better information about the costs, our (DFL) members understand that this is the right course for the people of Minnesota.”

DFL senators contend they need the new space because they must vacate the Capitol for two years, starting in mid-2015, while Cass Gilbert’s architectural masterpiece is being renovated. When the Capitol is restored, the Senate would have lost a large amount of space to new elevators, a stairway, additional restrooms and new public areas.

At the House’s request, the Administration Department looked into leasing office space in downtown St. Paul during the Capitol renovation, but it found no single building large enough to meet the Senate’s needs and cautioned that scattering senators in several buildings would make them less accessible to the public.

The agency’s staff also concluded that remodeling three other buildings on the Capitol campus – the Administration, Transportation and Ford buildings – to house the Senate either failed to provide adequate space or cost more than the proposed new building.

Last year, DFL lawmakers put language authorizing the project in a tax bill that passed on the last night of the legislative session. Dayton signed it into law.

While the law authorized the new building, it required the House and Senate rules committees to approve the final plan.

Next, the Senate Rules Committee must sign off on the changes made by the House panel. Senate DFL Majority Leader Tom Bakk, who chairs the Rules Committee and has championed the new building, scheduled a hearing Monday.

The final obstacle to the project is a lawsuit filed by former Republican Rep. Jim Knoblach of St. Cloud that is pending in the Supreme Court. If that issue is resolved, construction would start this spring and be completed in the fall of 2015.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.