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Legislative News and Views - Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL)

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Dave Pinto: More cost, less access in Capitol construction zone

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

By Dave Pinto

Do not enter.

Unfortunately, that is the sign that will greet Minnesotans next year when they visit the State Capitol during the 2016 legislative session.

Despite that the building is an active construction zone, the House Republican majority has decided to hold the 2016 session at the Capitol. There will be no running water. Worse, the public galleries will be closed. A strict capacity of 258 people will be allowed in the Capitol building, meaning most of the public will be unable to meet face-to-face with their legislators as we debate and pass laws important to their lives. To add insult to injury, this option will cost taxpayers $500,000 in build-out accommodations associated with holding the legislative session while Capitol renovations continue.

After another legislative session that ended with its leaders crafting a budget behind closed doors, I am disheartened that again it will be harder for the public to participate in its government.

Was there a better option? That's a good question for House Speaker Kurt Daudt. On March 25, JE Dunn Construction outlined specific costs associated with holding the 2016 session inside the State Capitol. Speaker Daudt was informed that there would be no running water, almost no public access and a price tag of $500,000.

One month later, the Minnesota Department of Administration presented potential alternatives. One was to hold the session in the Armory Building. Estimates pegged the cost of this option at roughly the same as the Capitol option.

However, it would have allowed restoration of the Capitol to continue and would have had the space to accommodate a public gallery.

The other option was to hold the session in a 250-person hearing room in the newly completed Minnesota Senate Building. This option was the cheapest, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands less than holding the session in the Capitol. Technology needs to conduct the session and make it viewable to the public would already be present. Most importantly, the public would be able to view our sessions and interact with their representatives as we conduct the business of our state.

Even the House Republican Capital Investment chair sounded the alarm at a House Capital Investment meeting in April where he pushed to hold the session somewhere outside the Capitol. He said, "There will be no running water ... I would like to emphasize that the gallery will be closed ... Frankly it's going to be a mess."

Given the information that was available to Speaker Daudt last spring, he could have elected to save taxpayer dollars and open up our session to the public. Instead, he chose to pursue a costlier option that shut out Minnesotans. Why?

The obvious answer is politics. Speaker Daudt and Republicans campaigned vigorously against the Minnesota Senate Building during the last election, claiming it was unnecessary. It would appear Speaker Daudt will do just about anything to preserve that political point -- including running up a larger tab on taxpayers and shutting them out of the 2016 session.

This is precisely the kind of thing that drives average Minnesotans away from politics. We should strive to make our government more open and accessible to Minnesotans -- not less, especially if the only reason to do so is to score political points.

Dave Pinto, a Democrat, is a member of the Minnesota House. His district includes St. Paul's Highland Park, Macalester-Groveland and West Seventh Street neighborhoods.

Read this column in the Pioneer Press.