IN placing the state Capitol on its list of most endangered historical places, Preservation Oklahoma codified what's been known for some time: the building is a wreck.
Gov. Mary Fallin used the designation, made last week, to call once again for action to be taken to repair the Capitol, which will turn 100 in a few years. Similar pleas have been made through the years and little has changed. Is there any reason to believe this latest turn of the crank will be any different?
We think not, because the best way to pay for the work — a bond issue — has consistently been rejected by conservatives who control the Legislature and there is no sign of that mindset changing.
Fallin's budget for the next fiscal year includes a request for $8 million to repair the exterior of the Capitol, plus $2 million to come up with a plan to repair and renovate the rest of the building. Certainly something needs to be done to ensure that no more pieces of limestone fall away from the building's exterior, as has happened occasionally since 2011. Scaffolding is in place on the southeast entrance to keep visitors from being conked, and fencing is up along the south steps.
Former Gov. Frank Keating recently called it “an eyesore to proud Oklahomans” and called on lawmakers to fix it now. Instead a study will be conducted, one that is sure to take a year or more, and then leaders will sit down and try to figure out how to pay for repair work that has been estimated at north of $150 million.
Some members have suggested making a withdrawal from the state's Rainy Day Fund, which holds nearly $600 million, to pay for the Capitol. That seems unlikely. And using the fund for that purpose would have agency heads banging on the governor's door demanding similar help for pressing infrastructure needs.
The Veterans Affairs office has needed a new building for years. The Jim Thorpe complex near the Capitol, which houses the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, has tremendous need of updated digs. And then there is the state medical examiner's office, which is truly an embarrassment to the state.
The Oklahoman's Zeke Campfield wrote in depth recently about the ME's office, which lost its national accreditation four years ago because of staffing and facility concerns. For a brief time last year, corpses had to be placed in refrigeration trucks because a 40-year-old cooler broke.
Lawmakers increased the appropriation to the ME's office by $2.5 million last year, money that was used to hire additional doctors and upgrade equipment. But the building is a disaster.
“Space is so limited in the morgue at the Oklahoma City office that examiners have developed a special protocol just for moving around the autopsy tables,” Campfield wrote. “Ceiling panels have rotted out where the roof leaks water. The autopsy tables themselves — three, where (Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Eric) Pfeifer says there should be at least six — are so outdated their fumigation systems hardly work and the drains underneath spill over with fluids.”
A new building could be constructed for $42 million, but efforts to do so through a bond issue have failed. Objections to bond issues have nothing to do with the state's ability to pay off the notes — that wouldn't be a problem — but instead center on the argument that all debt is bad debt.
Instead the preferred approach is to pay as you go, which likely will take longer to complete any projects and could wind up costing the state more in the long run.