Ugly yellow barriers and even uglier plywood-covered scaffolding will welcome lawmakers Monday when they return to the state Capitol for the start of the 2014 legislative session.
Their reward for passing the obstacles will be the pleasure of conducting the state's business in some attractive new legislative conference rooms and offices — courtesy of about $5.2 million in taxpayer-funded interior renovations completed while the Legislature was out of session.
The Capitol's unsightly exterior barriers and striking interior renovations — which are particularly regal on the Senate side — present lawmakers with some public perception challenges.
The yellow barriers — erected to protect the public from chunks of limestone and mortar falling from the crumbling exterior of the nearly century-old state Capitol — serve as stark reminders of failed legislation and work left unfinished.
The interior renovations — including a spectacular Senate Assembly Room — likely will make some Oklahomans proud, but may leave others wondering why lawmakers found millions of dollars to spend on their own offices and meeting rooms, but haven't yet found money for projects such as pay raises for state employees and completing Oklahoma City's partially constructed American Indian Cultural Center and Museum.
Drawing rave reviews for its beauty, if not its frugality, is the Senate's $1.5 million renovation of Senate office space on the fifth floor into an elegant Senate Assembly Room. Officials say the new room is consistent with the Capitol room's original design and grandeur.
The room's ornate ceilings, beautiful draperies and inset carpet with walnut and red oak perimeter border are stunning, not to mention such amenities as a projector and screen that drop out of the ceiling and a catering kitchen complete with stainless steel appliances and warming ovens.
Senate staff members said the fifth floor remodel cost $1.298 million and furniture, fixtures and equipment associated with it cost an additional $259,600, but declined Friday to provide an itemized list of how much various amenities cost, saying the Senate's controller was out of the office.
The ostentatiousness of that room has not been lost on some state House members.
“We didn't need a ballroom. We needed a place to meet,” state Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, said in describing the more modest renovations the House did on its new conference rooms.
The Senate also has worked hard to adhere to historical standards in its conversion of the old second-floor Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals courtroom and judicial offices into a conference room and six Senate offices, as well as its removal of 12 state House offices and restoration of a hallway on the third floor in an area that was often jokingly referred to as the “fish bowl.”
Combined, the Senate projects cost about $3.3 million, according to Randy Dowell, the Senate's chief of staff. State House renovations were a little over $1.9 million.
State Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said he hopes the public takes pride in the renovations.
“I think it's important that we maintained the historical significance of that building,” he said. “I think that's just an example of what needs to be done and what can be done.”
Bingman said he believes the new committee rooms will be a benefit to both lawmakers and visitors. The fourth-floor rooms the Senate has been using are too small for many meetings, forcing visitors to try to monitor proceedings from adjoining rooms where listening has often been difficult, he said.
Vacant space was created when the courts moved to their new building, and the Legislature needed to put that space to use, he said.
“You're going to have to spend money sooner or later on it and the longer you wait, things deteriorate,” he said. “It had to be done. We bit the bullet and did it.”
State House of Representative renovators also have been hard at work between sessions, spending about $1.9 million to convert former state Supreme Court office space on the second floor into 17 state House offices and two long conference rooms.
State House officials said they had no choice but to do renovations because a deal was cut requiring the House to give up 12 of its members' offices to the Senate before current House leaders were chosen.
McBride said the House also badly needed larger conference rooms to accommodate visitors and members.
“We have to have a place to do business and what we had was a little less than desirable for constituents,” he said.
None of the House renovations approach the ornateness of the Senate Assembly room, but they are functional, he noted.
The Legislature tried to address the Capitol's crumbling exterior last year, appropriating $120 million for repairs over a two-year span. However, lawmakers included the repairs in the same bill as a tax cut, prompting the Oklahoma Supreme Court to rule the bill unconstitutional for improperly covering more than one topic in a single bill.
So the problem is back for the 2014 session.
This year, the funding difficulty is expected to be greater because there is about $170 million less to appropriate from the general fund, the governor and House leaders have once again announced their desire for a tax cut and there is pressure from state employees for pay raises.
So how can lawmakers fund Capitol repairs?
Gov. Mary Fallin on Wednesday used her strongest language yet in calling for a bond issue to fix the building.
“We can't afford not to do a bond issue,” Fallin said, adding the state “should have done it a long time ago.”
Bingman said he would support a bond issue as a possible solution. But House Speaker Pro Tem Mike Jackson, R-Enid, said House Republican leaders continue to prefer a pay as you go approach.
House Speaker T.W. Shannon wrote a letter to Oklahoma's Long-Range Capital Planning Commission on Jan. 17 urging commissioners to “hold the line on our state debt” and use money from its $30 million current fiscal year appropriation to pay for repairs to the outside of the Capitol building.
Whether negotiations lead to a solution or deadlock on Capitol repair funding remains to be seen.
Bingman and Jackson said that's something the Legislature will continue to try to address, along with the state's other numerous needs.