Tarnished Image: Capitols, a Symbol of Democracy, Have Lost Some of Their Luster, but Renovations Started in Better Times Are Now Often a Budget Burden

By Boulard, Garry | State Legislatures, July-August 2010 | Go to article overview

Tarnished Image: Capitols, a Symbol of Democracy, Have Lost Some of Their Luster, but Renovations Started in Better Times Are Now Often a Budget Burden


Boulard, Garry, State Legislatures


In a colorful celebration attended by several thousand, Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter and legislative leaders from both parties in January officially unveiled the results of a project two years in the making: The renovated Idaho State Capitol.

The project included a restored marble lobby, cleaned and painted rotunda, and an additional 50,000 square feet of underground space.

"For 100 years this building behind us has represented the freedom of the people of Idaho," Otter remarked, beneath a huge American flag. "May it represent that for the next 100 years."

But for many Idaho legislators, the newly renovated statehouse also represents the wisdom of sound fiscal management even in the worst of economic times.

"The thing that really matters is that we were on time and on budget," says Idaho Senator Joe Stegner. "I was concerned about this project from the beginning because any time you renovate a building as old as our capitol, a building that hasn't been renovated before, you don't know what's underneath a lot of the layers."

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An additional concern was how high the price might go for repairing the out-of-date plumbing and electrical systems. But in the end the project was completed for $120 million.

"That's $10 million less than the renovation was budgeted for," says Gary Daniel, a spokesman with the Idaho Capitol Commission. "For a project of this size and scope to come in so substantially under budget is almost unheard of."

The cost and timing of capitol renovations are a concern in several states, and in some, the results are not quite as positive as in Idaho. Projects decided upon when fiscal times were better are now both a burden on the budget and difficult to explain to taxpayers, already angry about deep cuts to services.

TOUGH CHOICES IN NEW YORK

New York legislators are at odds over the completion of a $75 million statehouse renovation project started 10 years ago.

"It just doesn't make sense that when you are cutting programs, asking people to do more with less and people are out of work all across the state, we are going forward with this project," says Senator Thomas Libous. "It has just been going on too long, and costs too much to justify in the current economy."

The final phase of the renovation, with a $48.7 million cost, was launched in 2009 and includes repairs to the 134-year-old building's intricate skylight.

"We have a very beautiful State Capitol and certainly all of us want to continue to preserve it," says Libous. "But there is no pressing reason why we should keep this project going. The roof is not falling. The skylight is not falling. This part of the project can be held off until we get on a better financial footing."

New York Assemblyman Jack McEneny, who describes himself as a fan of the project, agrees it's an "exhaustive renovation" that includes removing partitions put in place during the governorship of Thomas Dewey, who wanted to make space for more people. "It even went to the point of installing a divider down the middle of the wide gracious hallways," says McEneny.

"But there are some practical things going on, too," he says, "such as the removal of asbestos and putting in modern wiring. We just replaced a 1920s air conditioning and heating system."

Historians of the Victorian capitol are not surprised that the renovation of New York's statehouse has taken so long and cost so much. Theodore Roosevelt, upon becoming governor in 1899, was astonished to see that construction of the building, which had started 25 years earlier, was still going on, at a cumulative cost of more than $25 million. He promptly declared construction was over.

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[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

SOARING COSTS IN KANSAS

Susan Thrane, an expert on the nation's statehouses, agrees projects such as the one in New York are going to be expensive. …

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