The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 22, 2013

Review SENATE BUILDING DEAL

Why it matters: A new Senate building was approved without the vetting other projects must face


The Mankato Free Press

---- — A new $90 million Minnesota Senate office building that escaped a rigorous public vetting process before its approval last year should be slowed or halted until it can be reviewed by the Legislature and garner public support.

The project was, according to a news report in the Star Tribune, “included in the tax bill late in the session with little debate.” The project was not vetted by the House Capital Investment committee, a public process for vetting the vast majority of state bonding projects. Chair Alice Hausman told the Star Tribune she was frustrated by this process and suggested that some Capitol projects seem to get special treatment. She said: “Some have gone to the head of the line.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk defended the way the bill was approved in a statement to Minnesota Public Radio this fall after former Republican legislator Jim Knoblach filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the maneuver. Bakk said it went through the typical process for such projects, which include being vetted by legislative counsel and the public finance experts at the Minnesota Office of Management and Budget.

He said other projects have been included in the public finance provisions of the tax bill over the years and this was consistent with that. The project will be funded by revenue bonds versus typical general obligation bonds that would come out of the bonding committee.

Bakk may be right on the technical legality of including the project in the tax bill, but he should consider the perception among taxpayers that the process does not seem consistent with sound public scrutiny.

This sleight of hand legislative maneuver came at a time when dozens of projects around the state — some more worthy than a new office building — were rejected because there wasn’t enough money.

The approval of what appears to be a pet project of Senate leadership erodes credibility of the bonding process and the public finance process. The proposed new Senate building should have to go through the bonding committee like other projects.

Some are already raising questions about the need for the project.

Democrat Hausman questioned the necessity of a five-story office building with attached parking to accommodate Senate offices that currently take up two stories. Supporters of the project have apparently told Hausman that when the Senate moves out of the state office building, the House can have two more floors, to which Hausman replied: “We don’t need two more floors.”

Proponents of the Senate building said it will house Democrats and Republicans together, that it will have expansive meetings rooms that can accommodate 300 people and allow more access to legislators and the legislative process.

Gov. Mark Dayton suggested the building is needed to house legislators outside the Capitol and that the office building is part of a bipartisan plan for the larger Capital renovation project. He seemed to wince at the opulence planned for the building, which will have a four story glass wall overlooking the capital, a reflecting pool and a fitness center.

Bakk, a carpenter by trade, told news outlets last summer that he would like the building to be architecturally significant and a monument to Minnesota.

Accommodating public access is a worthy goal. One can argue having both parties in the same building also might be a good idea. The problem here is the way it was quietly approved without the proper vetting.

We suspect the project was approved quietly for fear that taxpayers in a tough economy would find it excessive. That’s a reasonable assumption lawmakers ought to seriously consider. While some Minnesotans are struggling to meet their basic needs, they see their representatives treating themselves to a pretty obvious “want.”

If there project is needed and if there are benefits to the public in terms of public access and participation in the legislative process, legislators should have no problem making their case.

They should reverse direction and get some kind of public support. The project should go through the regular legislative vetting process. That would restore some credibility to the fairness of the legislative system for approving building projects. It’s also the right thing to do.