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  • 22 May 2015

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Capitol project advocates seek first chunk of funds

The official request is in: Advocates seek $161.8 million for the first two years of a four-year Capitol renovation project whose total price tag is $337 million.

The $161.8 million would be drawn from state bonds repaid from the tax-supported general fund. The initial debt service payment on those bonds, if lawmakers approve them for the 2015-17 budget cycle, comes to $10.5 million. Other costs, which cannot be drawn from bonds, are estimated at $2.9 million in the budget.

Of the total $337 million, $30 million is for design and engineering, and that amount has been spent from $34.5 million in bonds that lawmakers approved two years ago as part of the current two-year budget. The 2013 bonds do not authorize construction.

The project is intended to reinforce the Capitol against big earthquakes, largely by putting a base under it that would act like a shock absorber, and renovate parts of the original 1938 building.

“It is expensive,” said Gary Wilhelms of Tigard, a former House Republican leader, legislative staffer and business lobbyist who led a 2012 Capitol review panel for the project.

“There is no question about it, and nobody is happy about that,” Wilhelms said during a meeting last week with the Portland Tribune. “But the price is not going down.”

The figures were presented to the Legislature's joint budget subcommittee on capital construction, which has been hearing requests for use of state bonds in the 2015-17 budget cycle.

Work was done decades ago to shore up the Capitol rotunda, which was damaged in a 1993 earthquake and closed for two years. But at $4 million, the repairs were minimal. An estimate back then pegged the cost of full seismic reinforcement at more than $100 million.

Project scope

Proposed renovations would add several larger hearing rooms in the basement, in addition to the six already in the Capitol wings, and upgrade building access and electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems in the original Capitol.

Wilhelms said the renovated basement would have smaller office space for news organizations and lobbyists, both of whom pay rent, and slightly more space for a restaurant that also pays rent.

A renovated upper floor would combine Senate and House lounges for members into one, which would be open to public use between legislative sessions.

“The Capitol building needs work, with or without earthquake renovation,” he said. “But it just makes sense to do it all at the same time.”

One more hearing on bond requests is planned May 29. About $1 billion in new bonding capacity is available; the total excludes bonds repaid from lottery proceeds or earmarked sources, such as student payments for university dormitories.

The other $140 million for the Capitol project is likely to be requested as part of the 2017-19 cycle.

The project envisions that lawmakers would move to a renovated building at 550 Capitol St. NE after their 35-day session in 2016, and stay there until the Capitol renovation is completed in spring 2020. The entire Capitol complex, including the office wings that were renovated in 2007 and 2008, would be vacated during construction. The proposed bonds would cover relocation costs.

For and against

The $337 million overall price tag has prompted divisions.

Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day — who was on the 2012 review panel that Wilhelms led — has said lawmakers should not spend anything on the Capitol until work is done on all of the 1,000 school buildings listed in a 2006 statewide survey as being at very high risk or high risk of collapsing during a major earthquake. He has proposed $300 million in general bonds to help schools get started.

Ferrioli took the unusual step last week of singling out the number of eligible school buildings in a specific district — in this case, Sen. Chip Shields, a Democrat from Portland — and said it could be done “if we have the political will to demonstrate the leadership.”

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, was the champion of the 2002 bond issue that authorized $500 million for the school study and seismic renovations. So far, about $34 million has been spent on 37 projects. Courtney has proposed that lawmakers approve at least $200 million more from earthquake bonds for school seismic projects this cycle.

But Courtney also said it's time to move on the Capitol project.

“The Oregon Legislative Assembly is responsible for the Capitol … That makes us, the members of the Oregon Legislature, responsible for the safety of the people who work and visit here ... for the children,” Courtney told the budget subcommittee.

“We know what’s wrong. We know how to fix it.”

Marina Cresswell, the Capitol renovation project manager, also testified May 8 — as did Wilhelms.

Wilhelms said schools are responsible for maintenance of their own buildings, although they could seek state help. But like Courtney, he said lawmakers have sole responsibility for the Capitol.

“My proposal would be to do both,” Wilhelms told the Tribune. “We have the bonding capacity to do both. Nobody says you are going to be able to come in with a program and do (seismic work on) 1,000 school buildings in Oregon in one biennium.”


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