HARRISBURG, PA. -- With no fanfare and little public attention, scores of Pennsylvania state lawmakers are moving into new offices here in a luxurious addition to the state capitol that has been shrouded in controversy and scorned as excessive.
When the state Assembly reconvenes for its fall session today, 96 of its 253 members will officially set up shop in the "East Wing," a two-story, nearly 1 million square-foot addition to the rear of the capitol.
No ceremony is planned, perhaps because, as one veteran state senator noted, "It's like moving into the Taj Mahal."
Planned in several incarnations for 20 years, the building has been under construction for six years and is the first designed expressly for the Assembly since 1732 when work began on Independence Hall in Philadelphia. At $124 million, it is the most expensive building constructed by the state.
Highlights include glass elevators descending to a specially ventilated, fume-free, two-level underground garage; floors of hand-laid ceramic tile; glass roofs and offices; a lounge area filled with palm trees and looking much like a luxury hotel lobby; an indoor fountain, and a $600,000 outdoor fountain computer-synchronized to music. It also sprays water in patterns and shapes, including that of the capitol dome.
The state also has ordered more than $4 million worth of solid mahogany desks and other furniture for the addition. Current offices and furniture are being recycled among members not moving in.
Publicly, many lawmakers deny interest in the building other than to say they are not responsible for its cost and glamour. Privately, legislative staff members admit to having been besieged with requests for more or better space and even to bump junior members off the lists of occupants.
"Let's just say today's list is as of today and subject to change," one state House staffer said last week of room assignments. She and others said some senior members, who initially opted not to move to the addition, changed their minds after seeing it and requested that junior members be bumped.
Assignments were done by seniority, although many senior members have the poshest capitol offices and chose to stay in them. The 96 who are moving include 8 senators and 88 House members evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats.
Sen. Francis J. Lynch (D-Philadelphia), a 21-year veteran of the legislature, calls the building the "Taj Mahal" but plans to move in. Saying he had nothing to do with its cost, he added that since somebody must use the new offices, it might as well be him.
Rep. George T. Kenney Jr. (R-Philadelphia), who also expects to move in, is quick to point out that the building was planned before he came to Harrisburg. He said he doesn't have "much interest" in his new quarters.
Others have. The building has been the target of federal and state grand juries and a state House probe into allegations of kickbacks and fraud in purchasing and pricing of materials, especially Vermont granite quarried to match the original facade of the 81-year-old capitol.
A pending state civil suit alleges that a supplier overcharged for the granite. The state paid $32 million to have 76,000 sections of granite cut, transported and installed.
Although the addition was built during the administration of former governor Richard L. Thornburgh (R), he and his aides always referred to it as "the legislative addition."
Democrats sought to fault Thornburgh's administration for hefty cost overruns. The administration countered that costs increased because of legislative requests for more space or better materials. For example, a legislative sauna was planned but scrapped.
As for grand-opening ceremonies, a spokesman for the Department of General Services, which oversaw construction, said, "Ask the legislature." Office staffers there spoke of tentative plans for a modest dedication in December.