- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - A Minnesota Senate committee approved plans Wednesday for a new legislative office building that’s become entangled in partisan politics.

The $63 million building is intended to house offices for state senators and their staff, and it will include adjacent parking facilities totaling another $27 million. The building is to open in 2015 and be located directly north of the Capitol building across University Avenue.

The full Legislature authorized the construction last spring, but the state Department of Administration cannot proceed with the planning until rules committees in both the Senate and House sign off on preliminary designs and cost estimates. The Senate Rules Committee approved those Wednesday on a party-line vote, with majority Democrats in support, but the House Rules Committee still needs to do so.

Republican committee members complained the project has moved forward without proper scrutiny. Legislation enabling its construction was included in a tax bill, not the usual route for approving state building projects.

“There was no bill on it and there was no hearing on it,” said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. “I think we ought to have a committee hearing on this project.”

Republican interest groups have criticized the project, saying it shows arrogance by senators looking to spend taxpayer funds on elaborate new offices.

Democrats said the new building is a necessary part of an ongoing, large-scale renovation of the Capitol building. By next year, that project will force Democratic senators and other Senate offices out of the Capitol. And once the renovation is complete, the Senate won’t likely be able to count on retaining major portions of the space it now occupies under the dome.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the Senate stands to lose up to 23,000 square feet of space in the renovated Capitol. “The two projects are very closely linked together,” Bakk said.

The construction timelines are also closely linked, and that could pose a challenge for planners as Republicans seek to delay or derail the new building’s construction. Jim Knoblach, a former GOP state representative, has sued to block its construction, arguing it was improper to authorize construction bonds for the project in the tax bill.

Wayne Waslaski, the Department of Administration official overseeing the project, said the state cannot sell the construction bonds until the lawsuit is resolved. A court hearing is scheduled for next week. But the current plan is for construction to get going as early as next month, and Waslaski said delays would immediately add to the project’s cost.

Design work and construction planning cannot continue until the House Rules Committee signs off, too. A spokesman for House Democrats said the committee has not yet scheduled a hearing.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton acknowledged that while he understands the need for the building, it could be a political liability for his party.

“It’s certainly become partisan and political and campaign-oriented,” the governor said Wednesday, adding that he’d like to see its costs curbed.

Bakk said it might be possible to trim $14 million from the total price tag by putting off construction of one of two planned parking facilities. But he also disputed that it represented a political dilemma for Democrats.

“I think there are enough issues especially in Washington, D.C., that are probably going to have more impacts on this election than any vote that’s going to be taken on a building,” Bakk said.

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