Among the business left unresolved as Oklahoma's legislature winds down its session today is what to do about expensive, long-delayed repairs for the state Capitol building and nearby state office buildings.
The House rejected a $200 million bond issue on Wednesday (May 23) amid legislators' worries that their status as true fiscal conservatives would be called into question if they approved the borrowing. The proposal had been discussed throughout the session, with little disagreement about the need for repairs.
They were reminded of building's deficiencies each day the legislature was in session. The 93-year-old Capitol has long had unmet mechanical, plumbing and electrical problems, but the situation reached a crisis point earlier year when pieces of the façade began to crumble. “We now have barricades out in front of the Capitol because we're having blocks of the stone fall off the top of the building,” says state Representative Earl Sears, chair of the Appropriations & Budget committee, who sponsored the measure. “It failed simply because the members at this time didn't want to go into any more bonded indebtedness. Quite frankly, I agree with them.”
Still, say Sears, the Capitol is approaching its Centennial and its needs are urgent. This is the only bond proposal he supported this year. “It belongs to the people,” he says. “It's imperative that we take care of the people's state Capitol.”
House Speaker Kris Steele, who supported the measure, said in a statement that the national debate about federal debt colored the conversation in Oklahoma. “It reflected just how skittish members are about government debt in light of all the debt Congress has racked up in Washington,” House Speaker Kris Steele, a Republican who supported the measure, said in a statement. “While Oklahoma has managed its debt well, the fact is it's just a tough time to incur any debt given the political climate. It's an unfortunate result because these buildings really are in awful shape.”
The largest state agency, the Department of Human Services, currently lacks functioning air conditioning.
Oklahoma isn't the only state struggling with a rundown Capitol. In Minnesota, a report from the Capitol Preservation Commission recommended a $241 million restoration and said the situation is at a tipping point. “There is such significant deterioration of stone, risk of leaking piping, lack of ventilation in some areas, and disorganization of offices that it is time now to act to preserve this national architectural treasure or face the consequences of large annual expenses borne by the taxpayer to address these problems without fixing or solving the root cause,” the report said.
A proposed $221 million bond issue for a major renovation came up one vote short in the House, but $44 million was allocated as part of another bonding bill.
Tennessee's Capitol was closed for renovations after the legislature adjourned earlier this month and is expected to reopen in December. Funding for the $15 million work was appropriated, rather than borrowed, and will be used to upgrade the building's mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.
“It was time,” says state Representative Joe Pitts. “We get thousands of visitors a year. You can imagine having to repair plumbing in a 150-year-old building with marble and concrete and all that.”