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GOP pressed for pricier Capitol furnishings

admin//August 21, 2015

GOP pressed for pricier Capitol furnishings

admin//August 21, 2015

In this Aug.18 photo, furnishings in the office of Gov. Mark Dayton are replaced by tools as restoration of the Capitol continues. (AP photo: Jim Mone)
In this Aug.18 photo, furnishings in the office of Gov. Mark Dayton are replaced by tools as restoration of the Capitol continues. (AP photo: Jim Mone)

In restoring Minnesota’s Capitol to its old glory, renovators planned to spend $4.5 million on furniture and decorative finishing touches on the inside.

That was until House Republicans quietly pushed to bump up the furnishings allocation by $2 million, or 45 percent. According to interviews and internal Department of Administration documents reviewed by The Associated Press, the extra money is intended to accommodate historically compatible furniture in more spaces, higher-end upholstery, refinished hardwood flooring rather than carpet in leadership offices and even a $10,000 door on the House speaker’s Capitol suite.

“The vision was to take it back as close to 1905 as we could,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt said last week, referring to the vintage of the Capitol and a personal desire for decor that closely fits the building’s original time period. He said he was concerned that initial plans for furnishings were “at a quality level subpar to what people would have expected in a renovation of this nature.”

Even though the Senate’s top Democrat signed off on the spending and the Legislature later approved it, the Capitol Preservation Commission must still endorse the purchases. The discussion could start Monday when the panel meets to review the pace of the renovation project and authorize the next construction phases.

And while the line-item amount is small when weighed against the $300 million-plus cost for the total restoration, the add-on spending is opening Daudt and his Republican colleagues to claims of hypocrisy. On their way to a House majority in the 2014 election, Republicans pounded on Democrats during the campaign about posh office spending while they were in charge, most notably their authorization of a $90 million Senate Office Building.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, a Minneapolis Democrat, said he learned about the extent of the potential upgrades this month when the Department of Administration commissioner filled him in. The money was attached to a borrowing plan that emerged just days before it was voted on in a June special session.

“It seems to me that he can’t have it both ways,” Thissen said of Daudt’s rationale. “If he’s now in the position that we should be spending more money on the Capitol, especially to make his own office that much nicer, he should take back everything he said in the last election.”

Daudt, a Crown Republican, responded that critics are “grasping at straws” and inserting politics into a restoration project that has had strong bipartisan support. A Daudt aide said the powerful lawmaker won’t use the designated Capitol space assigned to him as an office if his party retains the majority in the 2016 election, something Daudt also said in January.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a Cook Democrat, said he agreed to the appropriation after Daudt approached him about the caliber of furnishings after both examined leather swatches and other items. Daudt and Bakk each told AP they were concerned about the durability of furniture.

The $2 million allocation came in addition to a well-publicized $31 million installment that the renovation team sought for security features, water intrusion remedies and street upgrades when the Capitol fully reopens in 2017.

“It’s not money that the administration requested,” Administration Commissioner Matt Massman said of the extra amount. “It’s not money the governor requested.”

Massman said the original $4.5 million budget for furnishings would have covered costs of refurbishing about 400 of 600 pieces of historic Capitol furniture, mostly for public areas. The plan was to mix in modern furniture in lesser-visited spaces.

Emails and other agency documents obtained under a government records request the AP made in late June reflect how top aides for Daudt approached state officials about going beyond the original scope. In response, the officials prepared estimates: $1 million to go from mid-range to high-end seating in committee rooms and other parts of the Capitol; $20,312 to refinish oak floors in four leadership offices rather than laying down carpet; and $10,033 for the door and custom hardware.

While the estimates were discussed internally, agency officials spoke in broader terms about $1.3 million in extra costs for upgraded features. Daudt said the GOP opted to set aside $2 million in case bids come in higher. “If we don’t need it, we don’t need it,” he said.

By comparison, the construction budget for the new Senate Office Building — a major priority of Bakk’s — projects about $4.6 million will be spent on desks, tables, chairs and other furniture and fixtures. Senators will move in early next year.

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