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Senate committee approves $77 million office building plan

Mike Mullen//April 8, 2014//

Senate committee approves $77 million office building plan

Mike Mullen//April 8, 2014//

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The plan for a new Capitol complex office building took another crucial step forward on Monday with a vote of approval from the  Senate Rules and Administration Committee. Senate leaders are apparently willing to adopt changes made late last week by the House, where revisions to the proposal trimmed more than $15 million from the project’s bottom line cost, which now stands at an estimated $76.8 million.

As has been the case since its inclusion in the 2013 tax bill, support for the building was split along partisan lines. Republican committee members asked a series of critical questions of the project during testimony from the Department of Administration’s Wayne Waslawski. After more than an hour, during which the committee’s Democrats had spoken only occasionally, Senate Minority Leader David Hann said he was dissatisfied by the lack of details available, and moved to delay the committee vote.

That motion failed, and soon after, the building plan was passed on an 8-5 party line vote. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk initially attempted to move the bill with a simple voice vote, but administered a roll call count at Hann’s request.

The major cost savings in the updated blueprints come thanks to the loss of two adjacent parking structures, which would have cost a combined $27 million. Instead, one nearby parking ramp has been eliminated, while another, 265-stall lot will be financed through user fees.

“The debt service, cost of financing, cost of issuance, capitalized interest — that would all be paid back through the parking rates that are charged on the Capitol complex,” Waslawski told the committee.

Costs for the building itself have actually risen in the latest iteration of the proposal, which adds 11,000 square feet of space to the blueprints. That space allows accommodations for all 67 senators and staff, numbering a total of 322 people; the previous plan would have housed only around two-thirds of the Senate and staff. The revision also cut the number of conference rooms from 16 down to eight, and relocated mechanical systems from the ground floor to the building’s roof.

The fact that the building’s cost had risen was not lost on Republicans during Monday’s hearing. Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, criticized the project for what he called “government math,” with the addition and reallocation of space increasing the building’s cost by nearly a quarter over the previous figure of $63 million.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchison, said he could understand an increase resulting from the higher number of offices in the new building, but wondered if that change would lead to savings on the Capitol restoration, which was previously intended to hold 23 Senate offices.

Any resulting changes to the Capitol construction still need to be approved by the building’s tenants, according to Waslawski, who said the Capitol space would likely be built-out regardless of which version of the plan was implemented. Following the committee’s vote, Waslawski said, the Department of Administration would revisit the subject with Senate leaders and decide how the new building’s redesign would affect the Capitol.

That uncertainty bothered Hann, who said the committee shouldn’t sign off on the project without a greater understanding of what it meant for the Capitol.

“I am troubled by the fact that we’re being asked to approve a plan for a new building that is related the redesign, or the reconstruction of the Capitol,” Hann said. “And yet, you’re telling us there is no coordination between the new plan for the new building and the current plan for the renovation of the Capitol. How can we, in good faith, make that decision if we don’t know what it looks like?”

The Senate building is still the subject of a lawsuit from Jim Knoblach, a former GOP legislator who has decided to seek his St. Cloud-area office again this year. Knoblach’s initial legal challenge to the construction plan was dismissed, but he has appealed the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

In late March, the state high court dismissed Knoblach’s motion for an accelerated appeal, according to the Associated Press.

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