The Kansas Capitol is the state’s crown jewel. But 11 years and $332 million into a renovation that was supposed to take eight years and $90 million, let it be said that the building also has become an embarrassing money pit.
When taxpayers have needed state leaders who would scrutinize the renovation’s cost and funding, they’ve had mostly yes-men.
So it was satisfying to see state Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, cast the lone “no” vote on the latest expenditure – $17.4 million authorized Monday by the State Finance Council for the visitors center, driveways and landscaping. McGinn said she disagreed in principle with spending $7 million of Kansas Department of Transportation money on the Capitol improvements, and thought the full Legislature should vote on such a proposal relating to the “people’s building.” Both were excellent points.
State government needs to stop raiding KDOT whenever it needs cash. And given the way lawmakers haggle during the legislative session about six-figure expenditures, it seems unwise for the governor and the eight-member council to be making multimillion-dollar spending decisions in August.
As McGinn also observed, the action the council just took to borrow money to pay for a basement-level visitors center was rejected by lawmakers two years ago, when it was anticipated that such a center would be privately funded.
State leaders have poured more and more money into the renovation since 2001, sometimes while cutting state aid to public schools, social services and other programs. They’ve also called on state universities and other entities to raise more money privately and rely less on public dollars. Now, was there really no choice but to pay for the visitors center by issuing $5.4 million in bonds?
Even outgoing House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, thought lawmakers already had approved money for a visitors center on the Capitol’s north side – a reflection of the confusion surrounding the Capitol renovation’s ever-changing timeline, price tag and to-do list.
Many point to the imposing 109-year-old building itself as having driven up the renovation price by requiring fidelity down to the last historical detail and involving long-deferred upgrades to infrastructure and technology. The chandelier newly hanging from the dome cost $296,000 alone. But state officials also have used the renovation as an opportunity to add all kinds of office space as well as an underground parking facility and now the visitors center.
Many of the renovations were sorely needed. And when it’s over, the whole thing promises to be as beautiful as the already upgraded House and Senate chambers. But the Capitol project long ago became a boondoggle.