Topeka Financial problems forced Kansas to close prisons and reduce aid to its public schools, but the budget-cutting won’t stop a $285 million renovation of the Statehouse.
Legislators approved an additional $38 million in bonds to keep the project going as part of the budget Gov. Mark Parkinson signed last week for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Legislative leaders are defending the decision to authorize the new bonds, noting that the top-to-bottom renovation is almost three-quarters done.
The project already had inspired criticism that its costs were out of control. And Sen. Chris Steineger, a Kansas City Democrat who has become its most vocal critic, said Tuesday that it has become “a sacred cow,” despite its costs.
“The Capitol renovation started and has proceeded thus far through what I’d call the ’Bling Era,”’ Steineger said. “People would pay exorbitant prices for everything.”
Before the renovation began, one state report guessed that its total cost would be between $90 million and $120 million. Legislators later added an underground parking garage, a basement visitors’ center and new basement office space to the plans.
Legislative leaders don’t see the renovation as exorbitant, noting it will preserve what is perhaps the state’s most prominent building. The work is scheduled to finish in June 2012.
“I think we need to get the project finished,” said House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican. “I think it’s very important that we restore the functionality of the Capitol as soon as possible.”
This year, legislators went through three rounds of budget adjustments to keep the state’s finances in the black. Public schools are seeing their base state aid drop $116 per pupil, and cuts in higher education funding are expected to lead to higher tuition at state universities this fall.
The Department of Corrections has closed three minimum-security prison units two corrections boot camps and two reporting centers for parolees in Wichita and Topeka. The state’s court system has had a hiring freeze in place since November.
But House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, said continuing the Statehouse project is still worthwhile because labor and materials costs have dropped with the slumping economy.
Statehouse Architect Barry Greis said if the project were halted for three years, the state could face $30 million in additional costs.
Davis said: “While I don’t think anybody likes having to proceed with renovations when you’re having to cut into social services and things like that, there is a unique opportunity right now.”
Legislators approved the project in 2000 because the Statehouse hadn’t undergone a thorough, floor-by-floor renovation in nearly 90 years, and its wiring, plumbing, heating and air conditioning were decades out of date. They also wanted better meeting rooms and more office space.
They previously had authorized $211 million in bonds for the first three phases of their project, the renovation of the Statehouse’s east, west and south wings. Greis said the south wing should be open again at the end of the year.
The final phase includes renovation of the north wing and construction of the visitors’ center. With the latest bonds, the state has $249 million worth of financing in place, which means legislators will be required to consider one last round of borrowing next year.
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jay Emler noted that the latest bonds were structured so the state could avoid any payments for several years.
“You don’t stop when you’re in the fourth and final phase, basically, of fixing your house,” said Emler, a Lindsborg Republican.
Steineger is skeptical of estimates that stopping the work for several years would inflate costs. He also said it’s “frivolous” to spend money on fixtures, such as new furniture, while the rest of state government is hurting.
“I think the priorities are wrong,” Steineger said.