Golden Turkey alert: $500 million on another legislative office building

The Minnesota House of Representatives is considering a $500 million renovation of the State Office Building. That’s $200 million more than we spent renovating the State Capitol. The current proposal is to renovate the existing building and add a new addition to the north almost doubling the total square footage. It’s not necessary.

The construction of the Senate Office Building in 2015 created a glut of available office space in the Capitol and the State Office Building as the Senate vacated both buildings. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk insisted his new building was necessary because the Capitol renovation required more room for larger elevator shafts and more “public space.” It was B.S.

The power-hungry Bakk designed grand office suites for himself as Majority Leader, the Tax Committee Chair, the Finance Committee Chair, the Capital Investment Chair and the President of the Senate adjacent to the Senate floor. Each of these committee chairs also had a second office in the new Senate Office Building across the street. The Finance Chair also has a third office next to their committee room on the other side of the Capitol. Thousands of square feet of wasted space.

The new Capitol includes an entire wing of “public space” with ornate conference rooms, a Cass Gilbert Library, an art gallery and a large workspace used by Capitol lobbyists. Thousands of square feet of wasted space.

The governor’s office grew by one third during the renovation with the addition of a basement conference room for cabinet meetings. Every Minnesota governor until Mark Dayton held cabinet meetings in the governor’s reception room. Wasted space.

There are three things the legislature can do to minimize the renovation costs of the State Office Building and better utilize the space available in the Capitol complex.

First, use some of the renovation budget to move some or all of the non-House tenants of the State Office Building across the street to the Capitol including:

  • Minnesota Secretary of State
  • Revisor of Statutes
  • Legislative Reference Library
  • Legislative Coordinating Commission
  • Legislative Budget Office
  • Joint Commissions

Between the third-floor east wing “public space” and the extra Senate offices, there should be more than enough room. Then the existing SOB can be renovated in its current footprint to solve legitimate problems regarding building mechanics and ADA compliance.

(As an aside, there are 17 different legislative commissions active right now. This might be a good moment to downsize government and eliminate a few to save some space in the new building.)

One of the driving forces behind the renovation of the SOB is security. The state patrol and House Sergeant at Arms office are on record saying they can’t keep the occupants of the building safe. Why is that and what has changed? I worked in that building three different times beginning in 1995 and ending in 2017. I never felt unsafe. What elaborate security measures are going to be built into the new building? How different will it be from the single guard at a security desk in the lobby of the new Senate Office Building across the street? Are Senate and House offices ever going to be accessible to the public again?

Capitol security has given up on the concept of public access to legislators. The new trend in buildings is “public space” for the citizens to attend committee hearings before their elected representatives disappear behind locked doors into their private offices. This is no way to run a government.

Which brings us to the second thing the legislature can do to minimize the renovation costs of the SOB: address the lawlessness that has taken over the core cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. They won’t say it out loud when they talk about security upgrades, but there is a light rail station on University Avenue right next to these buildings that has become a magnet for criminal activity. Instead of giving up on the neighborhood and building a fortress for themselves, legislators should address violent crime. We dedicated an entire magazine to this topic if they’re looking for ideas.

The third thing the legislature can do to save money on renovations is combine the House and Senate public information offices. Each body has their own and it’s a complete waste of money, especially in the era of social media. The plans for a new SOB include a television studio for House Public Information. The Senate recently built a state-of-the-art studio in their new building and there is no reason it can’t be shared.

Before the House spends over $500 million renovating their office building, leaders should take a quick inventory of the available space across the street in the Capitol and take action to close the revolving door of violent crime. Until the 1960s, the entirety of Minnesota state government was housed in the State Capitol in St. Paul. While the horse has left the barn on the growth of state agencies, we can at least utilize the space available in the Capitol to lower the cost of renovating the State Office Building.

If not, the new SOB will be an early contender for the annual Golden Turkey Award.