State Office Building boondoggle merits Golden Turkey nomination

The Minnesota Legislature is about to build yet another new office building for themselves and once again, they’re doing it without ever taking a vote on the floor of the House or Senate. The new State Office Building is nominated for a 2023 Golden Turkey award for its exorbitant cost coupled with a questionable funding process.

We all remember back in 2014 when Senate Democrats came up with a creative way to finance the new Senate Office Building. Rather than going through the normal state bonding process, which requires a supermajority vote in the legislature, they used “certificates of participation.” That building cost $90 million and was one of the reasons Senate Democrats lost their majority in the 2016 election. If the Golden Turkey Awards were around back then, this building surely would have been a top contender.

Perhaps out of jealousy, the House is using a similar process to build their new office space. Since the House has twice as many members as the Senate, the project should cost twice as much as the Senate building, right? Don’t be silly! The new State Office Building will cost almost $500 million. That’s five times the cost of the Senate Office Building and twice the cost of the State Capitol renovation in 2017.

The State Office Building is the home of the Minnesota House of Representatives and the Secretary of State. The building was built in 1932 and contains an office for all 134 members of the House along with their staff. The top floors house the Legislative Reference Library, the House Research Department, and the Revisors Office. The SOB is next door to the Transportation Building and across the street from the Capitol.

No one argues the building isn’t old and in need of repair. But in true state government fashion, House leaders are going well beyond “needed repairs” to build themselves a brand-new building fit for royalty. Rep. Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) called it a “Taj Mahal of office buildings.”

Their main argument for a new building is safety and security. According to House leadership, it is impossible to keep members and staff safe in the current building. So rather than doing something about the rampant lawlessness in the surrounding neighborhood — not to mention the entire state — their solution is to spend $500 million of taxpayer money to build themselves a fortress. Why didn’t we think of that?

The current building is 290,000 square feet. The new building will be 456,000 square feet thanks to a massive new wing. The new space will be for committee hearings and will be open to the public. That way, House members can wall themselves off in the other wing behind metal detectors and security. The days of popping in on your state representative are over — appointment only, please!

The idea of the House needing more space is more infuriating when you realize most of their employees haven’t fully returned to the office since COVID! House employees are only required to be at the office two days a week. Not to mention the fact that the House is only in session from January to May.

If the boondoggle building doesn’t make you mad enough, wait ‘til you hear how they funded it. More accurately, how they failed to fund it. The House knew spending almost $500 million on an opulent new office building would not be popular with voters, so they approved the expenditure using a convoluted two-step process. First, they slipped a provision into an omnibus bill that authorized the state to set up a spending account for safety improvements on buildings near the Capitol built before 1940. Wait, there’s only one building that qualifies! One year later, the House Rules Committee (not the full House or Senate) approved the renovation of the SOB using the same certificate of participation scheme used for the Senate Office Building.

Even the financing of this project qualifies as a boondoggle since certificates of participation require much larger interest payments than normal debt. All of this was done to avoid a transparent debate in the House and Senate where legislators could be held accountable for their votes. Not a single member, Republican or Democrat, objected as the bill was passed in 2021 allowing this to happen. No one even mentioned a new State Office Building as the language was passed. As a matter of fact, the only discussion of the provision came in the House Ways and Means Committee when bill author Rep. Mike Nelson (DFL-Brooklyn Park) offered an amendment, saying:

“Madam Chair, the A-4 amendment is something that’s being worked out between the Governor and the two leaders in the House and the Senate having to do with setting up a Capitol security account to deal with security issues around the Capitol complex. It’s authorizing revenue bonds and certificates of participation to be sold to create this fund to deal with the security issues that we have at the Capitol.”

Safety issues at the Capitol. Yawn.

The new State Office Building is nominated for a Golden Turkey not only because it’s a huge waste of taxpayer money, but also because the process to approve it lacked transparency and accountability.