Reluctant to Renovate

Policy makers are wary of how citizens will react to capitol improvements.
by | April 2007

Wayne Krieger is happy to be representing Oregon's southwest coastal communities in the state House, but he doesn't take much pride in his actual office. The room is small, it's jammed with papers and his one luxury, a small refrigerator, was a hand-me-down from a colleague.

"If you were in my office, you'd see furniture that's 30 years old or more," Krieger says. "If you had a yard sale, you wouldn't be able to sell most of it and you'd have to pay to have it carted away."

Oregon's capitol building itself is in no better shape than Krieger's little corner of it. There's mold and the water hasn't been drinkable for years. Krieger hopes that the legislature this month will approve a $35 million restoration. The estimated price tag has more than doubled in the five years the legislature has spent mulling over the idea of sprucing up the building, and it remains a tough sell.

For all their domed glory, state capitols often end up in a condition resembling Annie Hall's apartment in the old movie, which had "bad plumbing and bugs." But few legislators are eager to spend the millions required to restore the buildings for fear that their landlords--the voters--will complain about the expense.

Idaho Governor Butch Otter landed on the front page of the New York Times earlier this year not because of any startling policy proposals contained in his first State of the State address but because of his refusal to go along with a $130 million capitol expansion plan that had already been approved. "He doesn't want to make government any more comfortable than it needs to be," says Otter spokesman Jon Hanian.

In some cases, though, it's a question of structure and safety, not of comfort. Designers of capitol buildings during the 19th century didn't have to worry about accommodating electric lights, let alone air conditioning or the plethora of cables and computer wiring that run in and out of every modern office. There are statehouses that still have fewer restrooms for women than for men.

And architects in the old days couldn't have anticipated the increasing professionalization of legislatures. Year-round use, the explosion in the number of lobbyists and the problem of accessibility for the handicapped have all added to the need to update buildings.

It takes time to build support for a renovation, and the timing has to be just right. As soon as budgets shrink and other programs are cut, the idea of legislators spending money on their own surroundings becomes unpopular--especially since there are inevitable cost overruns as architects and engineers begin untangling the electrical wires and hire artisans to restore acres of murals.

It's the type of story the media love to jump all over. Mario Rubio recently joined a line of Florida House speakers criticized for spending money on renovations (in his case, a $550,000 members-only dining room). Texas Speaker Tom Craddick was widely mocked for adding features to his unique capitol apartment, including a $1,300 custom shower door and a pair of $1,000 toilets. This, despite the fact that the renovation was paid for by private donations. "Don't think of the $250,000 gift [from a phone company] as a legal bribe," wrote Houston Chronicle columnist Rick Casey. "Think of it as a tip."

Given that kind of press, it's no wonder legislators are afraid of spending more on revamping than their capitols cost to construct in the first place. Still, repair work does prove itself necessary over time because of wear and tear and the changing demands placed on these much-used and much-loved buildings.

"Most people don't mind us protecting the capitol. The parts of it that are not seen as frivolous add-ons people really do support," says Dennis McKinney, a state representative in Kansas, where the capitol is undergoing its first major renovation in 90 years.

McKinney is unhappy about serious cost overruns on the current job, but he notes, "The former speaker here had a joke that the building should be renovated every hundred years, whether it needs it or not."


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