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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Cost of Statehouse remodel grows

Associated Press

TOPEKA — Costs from the ongoing renovation of the Kansas Statehouse could reach $340 million — tripling some early estimates — a prospect that frustrated legislators on Thursday as they grappled with financial problems that are forcing them to make big budget cuts.

The Senate's version of a proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 would authorize almost $55 million in new bonds to finance the renovation. Almost $22 million would cover the cost of replacing copper plates on the building's roof and dome, to prevent leaks, and another $13 million would finish a basement visitor center.

House members haven't considered another round of bonds to cover the project's costs, and they're likely to force a discussion about how much to allow. But if legislators don't authorize some new debt, work on the sealed-off north wing can't be completed.

Senators didn't discuss the Statehouse renovation before approving their proposed budget earlier this week, allowing the provisions authorizing the new bonds to slip through largely unnoticed. But Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, who strongly supports the renovation, said the chamber isn't hiding its plans.

"It has to be done," he said Thursday.

Since the renovation began in 2001, the results have often been stunning, with offices, committee rooms and hallways returning to rich colors and ornate patterns of decades past. The work also is giving the Statehouse modern heating, air- conditioning, water and fire safety systems. Legislators' offices are less cramped, and better meeting rooms make events more accessible to the public.

Yet for critics, the project has become a symbol of needless extravagance and misplaced priorities as legislators try to close a projected $493 million budget shortfall for the next fiscal year. Even as the Senate's proposed budget floats the new bonds to keep the work going, it cuts base aid to public schools by $226 per student, or 5.6 percent.

"Here we are, on the one hand, spending lavishly on our state Capitol," said Sen. Chris Steineger, R-Kansas City, who has long questioned how the project has been managed. "My priority is public schools."

Early estimates put the cost of the entire renovation at between $90 million and $120 million, though that was before legislative leaders added an underground parking garage and approved an expansion of the basement for new offices. It also was before the state discovered unexpected needs for repairing the exterior stone and copper dome.

The work also has proven more time-consuming than originally expected. One early timetable projected the renovation finishing in October 2010. The completion date now is August 2013.

"We'll have to make a decision as to what we do about finishing the project out and how much that truly costs," said House Speaker Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson. "What the Senate has done, I think, is captured the top number."

Officials believe the state can't avoid some expenses. For example, air-conditioning chillers serving the Statehouse are more than 40 years old, and replacing them costs nearly $3 million. Outside work tore up the grounds, driveways and sidewalks; replacing them and doing new landscaping would cost $7 million.

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