Gov. Mary Fallin urged lawmakers Thursday to come up with a funding plan this year to repair and renovate the crumbling state Capitol.
“We need to have an open dialogue with our Legislature, with our other public officials about how we can begin the process of developing a strategic plan that all of us can support to repair the state Capitol,” she said. “It's time to get serious about repairing the state Capitol building.”
The Republican governor last year included $5 million in her budget proposal to legislators to pay for debt service associated with a bond issue to repair the Capitol. That would have supported a bond issue of about $50 million. Best estimates are it would cost about $160 million to repair and renovate the nearly 100-year-old building.
House Speaker T.W. Shannon said repairing the Capitol is a priority.
“I applaud the governor for once again bringing attention to the issue this legislative session,” said Shannon, R-Lawton. “Our options are to take on bonded debt, or a pay-as-you-go plan, but doing nothing is not an option. I believe the members of the House and the legislative leadership realize this is something that needs to be done, and there is the will to find a solution.”
A spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman said the Capitol's structural integrity issues are serious and growing more serious by the day.
“All options are on the table,” said Nathan Atkins, spokesman for Bingman, R-Sapulpa. “The pro tem believes it is very important for the Legislature to act in the interest of responsibly caring for taxpayer assets.”
Fallin invited the media on a tour of some of the more troublesome areas of the Capitol to highlight sewage, plumbing and electrical problems in the building.
Down in the ‘dungeon'
“Ooh, there's a big cockroach,” the governor said in the Capitol's “dungeon,” where sunlight peeks in through crevices in the granite stairwell above it on the north side of the west entrance and not far from where raw effluent from the building seeps into the ground.
About 450 people work in the Capitol for state agencies and legislators when lawmakers are not in session. The number balloons to about 700 during the four-month session.
“It's also a potential health factor to have mold in the Capitol, to have an old sewer system,” Fallin said. “We know that sewage does come up during different times. We smell it.”
The problems aren't new, Fallin said. She passed out copies of a newspaper article from 20 years ago in The Oklahoman about how fumes rising from a clogged sewer drain in the Capitol's basement caused a stinky start to the legislative session.
“Sewer gas!” Fallin, then a state representative from Oklahoma City, is quoted as saying in the article.
“We've known about this problem for a very long time,” she said Thursday. “We've got to get some guts and deal with the issue and take care of it.”
Doug Kellogg, building manager for the Capitol, said the building is in good shape structurally, but its plumbing and electrical systems are in desperate need of repair.
Chunks of limestone are falling from the building's exterior. Yellow barricades and scaffolding were put up in September 2011.
Finding repair funds
Finding a way to pay for repairs to the Capitol, which was opened in 1917, remains uncertain. House Republicans have resisted passing bond issues the past couple of years. The House, in the last week of last year's session, defeated a measure that would have authorized a $200 million bond issue; $160 million was earmarked to repair and renovate the Capitol and the rest of the money was for repairing other buildings in the Capitol complex. The bill failed 77-15.
“The fact of the matter is the Capitol is aging,” said Fallin, who still would support a bond issue. “It has a lot of needs. There are a lot of repairs that need to be done. It's embarrassing to have barricades out in front of the Capitol when we have tourists come or people who are coming here to conduct official business for our state.
“My goal is to bring everybody to the table, to find consensus, to develop a plan and to take care of the needs of the Capitol,” she said. “It's time to do that.”
Lawmakers could pursue a bond issue or appropriate money from growth revenue each year to pay for the work. Some have suggested lawmakers appropriate about $40 million annually for four years; a downside would be making sure the funding is in place for each of the four years.
Another option is to tap the state's savings account, the Rainy Day Fund, which has nearly $600 million. Up to 25 percent of the fund can be used when the governor declares that an emergency exists and two-thirds of the Legislature agrees; 25 percent of the fund now totals about $150 million.
Preston Doerflinger, who serves on Fallin's Cabinet as finance secretary, said the Rainy Day Fund is not the best option.
“I'm inclined to not suggest that,” he said. “There are other mechanisms that we can come up with to fund these repairs.”
Interest rates are low, and it's been estimated a $180 million bond issue could be paid off in 25 years, with the annual debt service projected at $9.9 million.
Doerflinger, who is director of the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services, said his agency, which is responsible for the Capitol's maintenance costs, is spending more on keeping the building operating. His agency has spent nearly $9 million since 2000 for nonroutine repairs on top of the annual $1.8 million needed to keep the building running.
“Most of our efforts are focused on just keeping the place literally from falling apart,” he said. “It's getting to the point where it is fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable to keep putting Band-Aids on a larger problem. It would be a lot cheaper in the long term to fix all that is wrong with the building instead of continually paying to fix things when they break.”
Duane Mass, the Capitol's architect, said two main priorities are repairing the building's exterior, which could cost $8 million to $10 million, and installing new plumbing. Sewage leaking from the basement into the ground is a health and safety issue for occupants of the building, he said.
“We're had lots of problems with the (sewage) line disintegrating underground,” he said. “We're beginning to have lots of problems with effluent leaching into the ground under the building.”
Fallin, holding a rusty pipe, said, “The question you need to have to ask yourself is would you want to drink water out of this pipe or would you want your children drinking water out of that pipe, and the answer is no.”
Mass said, “This building has done yeoman's work for the state. It has performed admirably for us, and now we just need to give it some good love.”