Va. Capital Building Plan Sets Off Clash

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

RICHMOND, Feb. 18 -- Angry House Republicans accused the Democratic-controlled Senate on Monday of wasting money in a tight budget year by proposing to spend millions of dollars on a new building for Virginia legislators and their staff.

The Senate wants to borrow $194 million to construct a building that would temporarily house the General Assembly and an additional $16 million to begin planning a permanent home for the legislature.

"They want to a build a Taj Mahal to make sure we can be down here in luxury," House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) said of Senate Democrats. "They are spending money on this when there are a lot of other facilities in the state that can probably use it. We can repair our building. We do not need a fancy-schmancy General Assembly Building."

State officials have talked about repairing or rebuilding the current General Assembly Building for years, but this is the first time either chamber has proposed spending the money. The House budget plan does not include any money for the proposal.

As House and Senate negotiators begin meeting this week to hash out a two-year spending plan, how much money to borrow for statewide construction projects is expected to become one of the major disagreements between Republicans and Democrats. Virginia is facing a $2 billion budget shortfall through 2010 as a result of a slowdown in the economy.

The legislature moved into its current home, a 400,000-square-foot building next to the Capitol, in 1978. It is predominantly used for offices for legislators, who are in Richmond two months each year, but also houses committee meeting rooms, a cafeteria and a few offices for permanent staff.

The building, which once housed an insurance company, suffers from a host of problems, including a leaky roof, electrical and ventilation trouble and an outdated fire alarm system.

Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the legislators need a better facility. "We always wait too long to build new buildings."

In 2005, the Senate, then controlled by Republicans, proposed spending at least $5 million to build a tunnel between the General Assembly Building and the Capitol. House Republicans objected, and the money was never allocated.

House leaders on Monday questioned the timing of the office building proposal. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) announced last week that the state will need to trim funds for state agencies, local governments, schools and colleges and possibly lay off employees because of the shortfall.

"In tough times, I don't believe you go into debt to build an executive office building that, while it would be nice to have, certainly doesn't fall [into the category of] trying to fund core functions of state government,'' said Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News), vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Under the Senate proposal, construction would begin in June on a facility across the street from the existing General Assembly Building in Capitol Square in downtown Richmond. It is expected to take about two years to complete.

Employees would move into the new building temporarily while the old one is torn down and rebuilt. That could take another two to three years. Eventually, legislators and their staff would move back to the General Assembly Building. The new building would then be used for other state agencies, said Richard F. Sliwoski, director of the state Department of General Services.

Colgan said that the state already has spent $9 million to demolish a building on the parking lot where the temporary facility would be constructed and that the legislature needs to finish the project.

The Senate also is proposing borrowing $85 million for a new state tax building.

When the House and Senate released their budget proposals Sunday, Kaine noted that the House recommended borrowing money instead of using as much money as possible from the state's rainy-day fund.

But Del. Lacey E. Putney (I-Bedford), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, pointed out Monday that the House proposal recommended borrowing millions of dollars less than Kaine and the Senate.

"More importantly . . . unlike the proposal by the governor and Senate, our budget does not include nearly $200 million in debt for a fancy new executive office,'' Putney said.

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