Concerned that they could be painted as not being fiscal conservatives, House Republicans joined with Democrats Wednesday to crush a $200 million bond issue to repair and restore the state Capitol and repair other buildings in the Capitol complex.
The House of Representatives voted 77-15 to defeat House Bill 3156, which contained the language authorizing the bond
“The problem I have with this is that I'll be voting on something that my kid is going to be paying for,” said Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater. “I'm supposed to be the liberal from Stillwater — tax and spend — and I sound like a fiscal conservative right now, not like the other side of the aisle.”
House Republicans have been squeamish about passing bond issues the past couple years. A Senate panel last year approved bond issues totaling more than $100 million for a building for the Veterans Affairs Department, a laboratory for the state medical examiner's office and to complete the unfinished American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City, but none of those proposals were considered in the House.
The Capitol bond issue was considered a tough sell, but the overwhelming vote against it surprised its supporters.
“It reflected just how skittish members are about government debt in light of all the debt Congress has racked up in Washington,” said House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, who voted for the bill. “While Oklahoma has managed its debt well, the fact is it's just a tough time to incur any debt given the political climate.
“It's an unfortunate result because these buildings really are in awful shape. It puts a lot of pressure on the next Legislature to act,” said Steele, who is term-limited and couldn't seek re-election. “These buildings won't fix themselves.”
House Appropriations and Budget Committee Chairman Earl Sears,
“My colleagues have spoken and it is quite obvious that they are not wanting at this time to send the state into that much debt for the Capitol,” said Sears, R-Bartlesville. “I do not think it is a message or a vote that they do not support refurbishing the Capitol. I think it is a clear message that we need to find another alternative in funding.
“If I bring this initiative up again, it will be to send it to a vote of the people,” he said.
House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, hammered on the fact the state already has about $2.2 billion of tax-
Annual debt service payments for the Capitol project are estimated at $10.7 million for 30 years. As a result, the state would be paying $130 million in debt service payments over the life of the bond issue, Inman said.
House Democrats argued for a pay-as-you-go approach. State revenue collections through April are $350 million higher than originally expected, they said, and they criticized Republicans for pushing for cutting the personal income tax rate instead of using that revenue to pay for the Capitol improvements.
“Please, let's just make the fiscally responsible decision and pay for it now,” Williams said. “Otherwise we have to call ourselves liars and say the press releases we send out about how flush with cash we are was a joke.”
Rep. Steve Martin, R-Bartlesville, said a bond issue is the best approach because it would make sure the work would be completed. An economic downturn or a change in legislative leadership could stall construction work.
“We would have to come up with a very large appropriation each year for a number of years to continue the project,” he said.
Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, called on lawmakers to use the $161 million in the Economic Development Generating Excellence Fund instead of transferring it to the state higher education budget to be used to match a backlog of privately funded endowed chairs with state funds.
“What about keeping our obligation to keeping this building repaired?” he asked.
Cost of repairs
Cost estimates to repair and restore the crumbling Capitol are about $160 million, with the rest of the money used to repair other buildings in the complex, such as the Jim Thorpe Building.
Covered scaffolding has been in place since September on the southeast entrance of the Capitol to protect those entering and leaving the building from falling pieces of limestone. Cautionary fencing also is in place along the south steps of the Capitol; those entering the building on the southeast side must use the handicapped entrance and walk under scaffolding.
The precautionary steps were taken after an engineering firm found damage to the building's exterior limestone panels on the southeast and southwest sides of the building. It's expected that the damage exists throughout.
Estimates are for a cost of $5 million to $8 million, taking about 10 months to repair the exterior masonry. About 30 percent of the copper roof needs to be replaced, and the steps on the Capitol's south plaza are in poor shape.
Other repairs include the building's electrical wiring and plumbing, much of it still in use since the building opened in 1917.
The Capitol, built at a cost of about $1.5 million, contains offices for each of the 149 legislators, staff members, governor, lieutenant governor, state treasurer, and state auditor and inspector.