Missouri officials are undertaking a $750,000 renovation of the Senate even as Gov. Jay Nixon is blocking hundreds of millions of dollars of spending for other programs and facilities because of concerns about the state’s finances.
The Senate renovation will remove staff offices that had been built in what once was an open space overlooking the dais at the front of the chamber. The intent is to restore the chamber to its original appearance while also making the space available for Senate committee meetings.
Although the Senate sought the improvement, some senators are now raising concerns about the cost and whether the project should take precedence over other delayed repairs to the century-old Capitol.
“In the list of priorities, I would rather see money spent right now on the Capitol as far as the water damage problems are concerned and the things where we have structural, significant problems,” said state Sen. Mike Kehoe, a Republican from Jefferson City who is part of a Senate task force on capital improvements.
Nixon’s Office of Administration is coordinating the work, which is expected to begin in October.
On Thursday, it received six bids ranging from $429,400 to $527,500 for the construction work, which includes new carpet and a refurbishment of historic plaster, paint and lighting. Various walls and stairs also will have to be removed. When design and other administrative costs are included, the project is likely to cost nearly $750,000, the administration office said.
The renovation will force 10 staff members to be relocated, which could trigger additional office shuffling for other senate staff and, potentially, some journalists who cover the Capitol.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer said he supports the project but added that the cost estimate “seems ludicrous” and “absurd.”
“I can’t imagine how on earth simply converting that space into more access for the public would cost near that much,” said Schaefer, R-Columbia.
Funding for the project is coming from the state’s Facilities Maintenance Reserve Fund, which has been largely frozen by Nixon. During the 2014 budget that ended in June, Nixon released just $17 million of the $70 million budgeted for the fund. This year, he has released just $4 million of the $71 million that was to be transferred into the fund while citing concerns about potential budget shortfalls.
All told, Nixon is blocking $735 million of expenditures this year, including tens of millions for construction projects at public universities and funding increases for college scholarships, mental health care providers and child care centers.
Included in that total is $53 million that Nixon froze earlier this month after legislators overrode 47 of his line-item budget vetoes, including $1.5 million for forensic exams of abused children and $160,000 to equip state water patrol boats with heart defibrillators. Nixon’s office said he was blocking the spending “to prevent the growth of government beyond available revenues and ensure a balanced budget.”
Administration Commissioner Doug Nelson said the improvements to the Senate are one of several Capitol projects that will be funded despite the state’s general spending constraints. Repairs also are planned to the building’s windows, elevators and heating and air conditioning systems. But nearly $40 million remains frozen for repairs on the building’s exterior, front steps and basement to help stop water leaks.
Nelson said the Senate project was not merely a renovation but a better use of available space.
“I think this is a good use of the dollars,” Nelson said. “It will allow the Senate to appear and to operate in a professional manner. They should be allowed to do so.”