Political fight looms over renovating Minnesota lawmakers’ office building

The idea of another costly renovation of Minnesota lawmakers’ office space will soon spark a new political fight.

State officials are about to pick a design firm to craft a plan and estimate the cost of remodeling the 90-year-old State Office Building, which is home to the House of Representatives and its staff. One previous cost estimate, which is in dispute, put the price tag at $288 million — almost as much as the $310 million to renovate the state Capitol last decade.

The State Office Building, which stands across from the Capitol, is in disrepair. In 2016, a valve broke between the fourth and fifth floors, flooding the building. Administration officials have also raised concerns about the building’s porous security.

“We have ventilation issues. We have mold issues. And of course, we have significant security concerns,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said in an interview. “Capitol Security has repeatedly stated that it is the least safe building on the Capitol complex.”

This week, the State Designer Selection Board held public interviews with a handful of design firms, including Miller Dunwiddie Architects, HGA, and BWBR. Designers from the firms recommended top-to-bottom renovations to address security, accessibility, energy consumption and functionality.

Interior courtyards

BWBR suggested that the building’s original interior courtyards, which were eliminated in a 1985 renovation, could be restored.

The winning firm is expected to start developing a remodeling plan and cost estimate next month. That initial work, referred to as a “needs assessment,” carries a $3 million budget, according to a Department of Administration memo to House and Senate leaders in late December. The state’s own timeline has construction starting in 2023 and finishing in 2026.

Only the House needs to give the go-ahead before work starts. The DFL-controlled House and Republican-led Senate included that last-minute change in a budget bill last summer, requiring only the building’s “primary tenant” — the House — to sign off.

The House Rules committee will hold a public vote on the renovation plan that the Department of Administration chooses, Winkler said.

Such votes carry political implications. Republicans say they will be critical of the design plans, and it wouldn’t be the first time lawmakers remodeling their office buildings turned into a campaign issue.

TV attack ads

In 2014, the GOP and a conservative group ran television attack ads against Democrats for approving the $90 million Senate building, referring to it as a “luxury office building.”

By one estimate, the cost of renovating the State Office Building will be much higher. In 2019, Administration officials published a $288 million estimate.

“I don’t expect that will be the case,” Winkler said. “I don’t know where that estimate came from, or what it represents.”

State officials have recently added a new security kiosk and key card access devices in the building. But the renovation will include far more significant security work, Administration Commissioner Alice Roberts-Davis said in December.

Still, the project’s total scope won’t be “anything as comprehensive” as the 2013-17 Capitol rehab, she said.