Cost of Oklahoma state Capitol renovations raises questions

Legislators return Monday to the state Capitol for the 2014 legislative session. More than $5 million in interior renovations were completed while the Legislature was out of session.
by Randy Ellis Modified: February 2, 2014 at 10:00 am •  Published: February 1, 2014

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.

Interior renovations

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.”

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by Randy Ellis
Capitol Bureau Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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