An unusual hearing took place at the State Capitol last week. Members of the Joint Rules Committee gathered to hear presentations on plans to tear down the existing State Capitol annex and replace it with a new, modern building. Three different building design models were reviewed. A design decision will come soon.
For those of you who have not ever visited the Capitol, the annex is an addition to the historic Capitol building that was constructed in the 1950’s and houses offices for the Governor and the Legislature, including several committee hearing rooms and an underground parking garage for lawmakers.
Anyone who has spent any time working at the State Capitol over the years knows the need for this project is without question. The building is exceedingly cramped, and there are several problems with asbestos, electrical systems, and Americans with Disabilities Act-compliance.
In some offices, staff is literally working on top of one another. When large constituent groups come to visit, meetings are often held in the hall as legislator offices are small and conference room space nonexistent. With the rise of citizen activism, Capitol hallways are jampacked on big hearing days, making it difficult to move around.
But at a time when millions of Californians are struggling during the COVID-19 crisis, tax revenues are in sharp decline, and the state budget is balanced on the hope that Congress will pass a nearly $1 trillion state and local bailout, does it still make sense to move full steam ahead with this project?
Back in 2018, $755 million in funding was appropriated to construct the project, to be financed by lease revenue bonds. To be sure, the firm hired to oversee the project spoke during the hearing of their approach to the project budgets that have kept similar capitol restoration projects in other states on budget. The costs will certainly shift when lawmakers select a design option for the annex project. As noted during the hearing, the project is currently running about 5 to 10 percent over budget.
A proposed visitors center, which would serve as the new public entrance for the Capitol, was noted during the hearing would cost an additional $40.8 million for the project’s first phase. The first phase of the project is already funded. The project’s second phase to fill out the planned exhibit spaces would cost as much as $39 million more, which is not yet funded.
The entire visitors center component is on hold for now due to budget constraints. Assemblyman Ken Cooley, Joint Rules Committee chair, noted in the hearing that the visitors center is considered an “asterisk” right now under the 2020-21 state budget, which moved forward funding to begin the annex and parking structure, but not the visitors center. If scrapped altogether, it would cost about $6 million to beef up the annex square footage to handle the additional crowd flow, restrooms, and security.
Speaking of the controversial Transbay Terminal project in San Francisco, former mayor and Assembly speaker Willie Brown wrote, “in the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”
With the state already building a temporary new office building across from the Capitol scheduled to open next year, at a cost of $420 million, you could argue that the hole has already been dug pretty big.
There’s no question that the Capitol annex project must go forward. A rebuilt Capitol will improve safety and efficiency, while accommodating the additional involvement of the public in the legislative process – which alone is worth its weight in gold. And there would certainly be a lot of temporary construction jobs created during the projects 3-plus year construction timeframe.
But it will be very difficult for lawmakers forced to make tough budget choices this year and next to say that their constituents had their most important program cut or have to pay higher taxes to fund a lavish new office building for themselves.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.