By Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township
Rep. Dave Pinto's recent column in this paper regarding the restoration of our state Capitol misrepresents key decisions and may cause be cause for confusion. As a member of the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission, please allow me to clarify a few things:
There is no additional cost to holding the 2016 session in the Capitol. Zero. The cost of holding session in the Capitol was included in the original restoration plans, and holding session in the Capitol does not add a single dollar to the original restoration price tag. There has only been one alternative presented to lawmakers: Holding the 2016 session in the St. Paul Armory, which would have cost an additional $500,000.
Language in the 2012 legislation which launched the Capitol's refurbishing specifically states: "Construction work shall be sequenced to maintain occupancy in the house of representatives and senate chambers during regular legislative sessions, unless otherwise approved by the speaker of the house and the majority leader of the senate for respective chambers.”
Holding the 2016 session in the Capitol has been the plan from day one, and remains the plan today. When Democrats had full control of the Legislature in 2013-14, they could have changed these plans, but then-Speaker Paul Thissen and Democrats declined.
Instead, Democrats decided to construct a $90 million office building even though the Capitol restoration project, approved by the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton in 2012, already included those plans to keep the House and Senate in the Capitol chambers at no added cost.
To make matters worse, Democrats chose to reduce public access as a way to lower the price tag. Anyone who has visited the Capitol knows one of the biggest challenges is finding parking. Original plans for the new $90 million Senate Office Building included a ramp exclusively for the public to make it easier for folks to visit the Capitol. Democrats decided to eliminate this public parking lot and expand the square footage of the Senate Office Building, reducing public access and growing the footprint of this government building.
Even as recently as last January, a report presented during a public meeting at the Capitol indicated: “The House chamber, however, is planned to be utilized for the 2016 session. This will include some immediate areas adjacent to the chamber and accessible routes to and from entrances to exits. To accommodate the House chambers, temporary restrooms will be needed.”
Democrats, including one of Rep. Pinto's colleagues from St. Paul, had a chance to voice objections or propose an alternative site for the 2016 session, but neglected to speak up. As a result, our plans remained to stay in the Capitol.
We knew there would be bumps along the way as a part of this massive Capitol restoration project. This has always been a bipartisan undertaking, and I'm disappointed that Rep. Pinto and his colleagues are now trying to turn this into a partisan battle in order to score cheap political points.
We are going to great lengths to ensure the public will have access to legislators and is able to view floor sessions. We're excited the public will be able to enjoy an historic opportunity to view debates from the House floor during next session. Public viewing areas will be set up in the alcove of the House chamber, truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The bottom line is legislators will continue meeting with citizens and the public still will be able to follow proceedings from monitors at the Capitol complex, on TV at home or worldwide with Internet access. We are fully committed to conducting business openly and transparently, and will make sure citizens have access to their legislators and the ability to watch legislative proceedings.
I will be going the extra mile next session to be accessible to people for face-to-face meetings or other means of correspondence, and I'm sure fellow lawmakers of both parties will do the same. We can talk about important things like fixing the MNsure program and its soaring health insurance premiums, establishing a long-term transportation plan and providing tax relief to Minnesota families. I look forward to a productive session at the Capitol, and to the eventual completion of this historic restoration project that will ensure future generations can enjoy this Minnesota monument.