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Minnesota Legislators inspect Capitol, doubt project

ST. PAUL - Beneath the Capitol's marble dome, grand rotunda and ornate legislative chambers are exposed wires, poorly ventilated offices and outdated maintenance equipment.

ST. PAUL - Beneath the Capitol's marble dome, grand rotunda and ornate legislative chambers are exposed wires, poorly ventilated offices and outdated maintenance equipment.

"Want a little asbestos?" Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said half-jokingly as he tugged at old duct insulation in a basement service room.

Lawmakers peered into lesser-seen areas of the 102-year-old Minnesota Capitol on Thursday to learn about a proposed $263 million renovation that would update and expand the building's interior.

Many legislators say Capitol upgrades are needed, but some question the project's cost and worry new construction could dramatically alter the building's appearance.

"We know we have to have the heating, the ventilation, the water damage done," said Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown. She serves on the House Capital Investment Committee that toured the building.


Designers led lawmakers through mechanical rooms that don't meet code requirements, narrow tunnels and even an old dining room hidden off a basement hallway.

"I've eaten in here," recalled Murphy, a longtime legislator.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said the project price tag seems high. The Willmar DFLer said he'd support spending money to improve the Capitol's heating and ventilation systems and to enhance maintenance areas.

However, rather than construct a mostly below-ground addition to the Capitol - and alter the exterior appearance - Juhnke said more consideration should be given to constructing a new building near the Capitol. That would probably be cheaper, he said.

"I think we need to look at all the options," Juhhke said.

There is disagreement over how the six-year construction project would be funded. One proposal uses state-borrowed dollars appropriated in so-called bonding bills beginning in 2008.

Sen. Keith Langseth, chairman of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, has proposed paying cash for the project. The Glyndon DFLer's plan includes tapping $130 million this year from a one-time state surplus of $1 billion.

That plan probably wouldn't pass the Legislature, said Rep. Morrie Lanning, who toured the Capitol and said it does need work.


Before lawmakers sign off on any more money for the project - initial design funding already was approved - more input is needed, Lanning said. The Moorhead Republican suggested forming a planning committee of legislators and others.

A retired social studies teacher, Urdahl said he is concerned about how the project could alter the "preservation of history."

Officials said the Capitol's historical significance wouldn't be lost in a renovation.

"We're trying to be absolutely mindful of the historic nature of this building," architect Michael Bjornberg said.

Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Herald.

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