Minnesota House offices in 'disturbing' condition, lawmakers near rehab vote

Lawmakers in the Minnesota House are nearing a final vote to renovate their own 90-year-old office building, saying the facility is falling apart, unsafe, and inaccessible to people with disabilities.

The House Rules committee held an hourlong hearing Monday that bordered on a sales pitch for rehabbing the State Office Building. At points during the hearing, project supporters pointed to accessibility issues within the room where the meeting was taking place. Yet, 48 hours before a planned vote, no one has released a final cost estimate.

Capitol Security staff have long considered the structure to be the least secure building within the Capitol complex. There are multiple entry points, while small hearing rooms and hallways become crammed with people during the legislative session.

"I have concluded, as I’ve spent a lot of time here, that the current condition of the Minnesota State Office Building has vulnerabilities and increasingly threatens the House’s ability to protect the occupants," said Bob Meyerson, the House's former chief sergeant at arms and a consultant to the renovation.

Safety issues present themselves in multiple ways, Meyerson said. He recalled how a staffer needed surgery to remove an eight-inch shard of wood paneling that got lodged in their leg. In another case, a staffer fell on a staircase and broke through a window.

Engineers with the state Department of Administration have had the State Office Building renovation at the top of their construction list since 2010, facilities director Chris Guevin said. A burst valve on the building's fourth floor flooded the building, requiring extensive repairs.

The one thing that Democrats who control the House weren't ready to talk about on Monday: the project's cost. They'll release design plans and a cost estimate before Wednesday's final vote, they said.

"I’m happy to comment on Wednesday," outgoing House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, told reporters after the hearing. "I think it’s important to put any cost estimate in context of space needs, the requirements of the tenants, the security needs."

One previous cost estimate put the renovation price tag at $288 million -- almost as much as the $310 million to renovate the state Capitol last decade. Winkler has said previously that he doesn't expect the cost to be so high.

Only the House Rules committee needs to give the go-ahead before work starts. The DFL-controlled House and Republican-led Senate included a last-minute change in a 2021 budget bill that requires only the building's "primary tenant" -- the House -- to sign off.

Renovations of lawmakers' office space can be politically charged. In 2014, Republicans ran TV ads against Democrats over the $90 million cost of the Minnesota Senate Building. Anticipating this looming vote on the State Office Building, the GOP's campaign literature this fall compared renovated offices to the Taj Mahal.

"It’s frustrating that we’re now sitting here today we don’t know the numbers," state Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, said during Monday's hearing. "We’ve heard that it could be more than the state Capitol renovation."

Project supporters also raised accessibility issues. The building is likely not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, said David Fenley of the Minnesota Council on Disability. 

There's only one wheelchair-accessible entrance near a vehicle drop-off spot, and the entrance is sometimes blocked by a nearby loading dock, Fenley said. Hearing rooms have steep inclines that make it difficult for people in wheelchairs.

"I can say, point blank, folks with disabilities are being denied access under its current condition," Fenley told lawmakers.

House GOP Leader Kurt Daudt said he opposed a full renovation but agreed some fixes are necessary. A tunnel between the State Office Building and the Capitol is so steep that Daudt said he's had to push people in motorized wheelchairs up the ramp.

"I think there are things that need to be updated in the building, but I think we need to be good stewards of tax dollars," said Daudt, R-Crown.

If the Rules committee authorizes the project on Wednesday, some preliminary work will start soon after the Legislature adjourns in May, Winkler said. The work will require the House to leave the State Office Building for "at least one full session," he said. The state would sell bonds to finance the project.