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Lawsuit: 'Chaotic' Legislature led to unconstitutional state building OK

ST. PAUL -- A former Minnesota House member wants to stop construction of a new state Senate office building, claiming lawmakers and the governor broke a state constitutional requirement when approving the facility.

Former state Rep. Jim Knoblach of St. Cloud
Former state Rep. Jim Knoblach of St. Cloud announces Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013, that he is suing the state over a planned new Minnesota Senate office building. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

ST. PAUL -- A former Minnesota House member wants to stop construction of a new state Senate office building, claiming lawmakers and the governor broke a state constitutional requirement when approving the facility.

Jim Knoblach, a Republican from St. Cloud, filed a lawsuit Thursday to stop construction, saying the measure lawmakers passed in May violated a constitutional provision requiring every bill to contain only one subject.

The estimated $63 million for the office building and $26.5 million for Capitol-area parking facilities were contained in a tax bill that also included more than $2 billion in tax increases. Knoblach said there is no better example of a single-subject violation than combining construction spending and tax revenues.

"It was buried deep in the tax bill and passed on the chaotic last day of session," said Knoblach, who for a time was chairman of the House committee that approves public works projects such as new state buildings.

The single-subject provision often is discussed by lawmakers. It also has been the subject of many court cases, and judges in recent years generally have let legislators decide how to define single subject.

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Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, widely credited with getting the building included in the bill, said lawmakers, Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative attorneys decided the provision was constitutional.

"I fear the only result of this suit will be the waste of taxpayer resources on legal expenses and the potential costs associated with delaying the construction project," said Bakk, DFL-Cook.

Democrats said there often is tax bill spending.

"Authorization of the construction of the new legislative office building was included in the public financing section of the tax bill, which is consistent with past legislation," Democratic House spokesman Michael Howard said.

The top Senate Republican said the GOP always has opposed the building.

"We voted to eliminate this giant, wasteful provision that spends over $90 million on a new building for politicians," Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said, adding that some of the higher Minnesota taxes are paying for the building.

Planners are working on a preliminary building design, which should be completed in late December. After legislative leaders approve it in January, groundbreaking could come in late February or early March, with completion in 2015.

The building is to include offices for most senators and staffers, who now are split between the Capitol and a nearby office building. Also in the facility across the street north of the Capitol are to be an indoor parking ramp and meeting rooms.

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The lawsuit says Republican senators first learned of the building plan April 24, when the Democratic-controlled Tax Committee approved $3 million to plan the facility.

The building would be constructed and owned by a private business, with the tax bill committing the state to lease and eventually buy it.

To pass the Legislature, 60 percent of each body must approve public works building projects. The tax bill needed only a simple majority, and Knoblach said he does not think a bill with the new facility included could receive the needed 60 percent vote.

Knoblach's lawsuit, filed against Dayton and others in his administration, asks the judge to stop the state from spending any money on the building.

While Knoblach said he is not asking the courts to overturn other parts of the tax bill, he said a judge could do that. If it happens, $2.1 billion in tax increases and a major Mayo Medical Center project in Rochester could be wiped out.

Timing for building the facility is tied to a Capitol renovation project that is to be mostly finished by late 2016. Planners hope the new building can be occupied in 2015, so senators and staffers can move out of the Capitol, although some would move back when renovation is done.

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