The Capitol visitors project was dead.
In fall 2017, conservative lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder felt the $70 million project to replace the Capitol’s electrical wiring and heating and cooling system was steep enough.
Another $85 million for a “learning center” and underground parking ramp was too much. And once the geothermal holes started being drilled into the Capitol’s west lawn, the thought was that building a learning center for thousands of visiting school children was dead.
But if there’s one truism in Lansing, it’s this: The dead can rise again.
Gary Randall, the head of the state’s Capitol Commission, spent much of his professional life under the Capitol dome as the House clerk and knew this better than anyone. Instead of burying the Heritage Hall plans, he and the commissioners worked on a scaled-down plan.
The parking ramp had to go. Yes, legislators were losing roughly 200 surface spots behind the Capitol in the renovation project. But the political optics of bonding money so legislators wouldn’t have to walk outside to the Capitol were bad.
The cost had to come down. Legislators love entertaining in-district school groups. The crush of kids, parents, teachers, etc., jamming the Capitol’s east entrance? Not so much.
Michigan’s Capitol apparently brings in more school groups than just about anywhere. Creating area where kids and parents can learn more Michigan history had appeal.
Also, building a large meeting area would be a big selling point for lawmakers.
Fact: The Capitol area has no good area to hold the governor’s budget presentation. Inevitably, dozens of people are locked out because neither the House Appropriations Room nor the ground floor Boji Tower room is large enough. The same holds true for bigissue committee meetings. They often spill into one or two overflow committee rooms with a video feed.
The Christman Group was asked to draw up a scaled-down, 54,000-square-foot plan with a bus friendly pull-off along Ottawa Street and an underground corridor to the Capitol building. Final price: $55 million.
Behind the scenes, a renewed push began with the Lansing Chamber of Commerce working local Republican members. Contrary to early belief, construction could start without disturbing the geothermal holes.
Then-Sens. Rick Jones and Margaret O’Brien and then-Rep. Tom Barrett were all sold on what a boon the project would be for the area.
Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, was always a big fan, as was someone with the benefit of being in leadership — then- House Minority Leader Sam Singh, also an East Lansing Democrat, who never gave up on the project. He brought it up in literally every budget meeting.
Meanwhile, Michigan’s state revenue picture, for once, looked good at the end of 2018. The governor and legislative leaders had more than $200 million to spend.
As one insider put, the governor was signing off on projects “like candy” as Snyder secured votes on an A-F grading scale, among other lame duck priorities.
Against this backdrop, Singh pushed for Heritage Hall. But even at $55 million, the price was too steep. Lame duck’s initial supplemental budget didn’t include it.
As it so happened, about this time, Snyder was pushing for a constitutional amendment, SJR O, which would allow voters to steer more oil and gas royalty money to state land upkeep as opposed to land purchases. Apparently, the state was buying up so much land that it didn’t have the money to keep it up.
SRJ O needed a two-thirds majority in the House. That meant it needed Democratic support. Singh linked the measure to legislation making the $11 annual passport charge on vehicle tabs for state parks an “opt-out” as opposed to the current “opt-in.” If funding parks was the issue, Singh thought, “Let’s raise more money for parks.”
House Speaker Tom Leonard was a “hell no.” He saw an “opt out” as an unfair, subtle tax increase on unsuspecting drivers.
But Leonard was concerned the supplemental budget had become a porkladen Christmas tree of Republican junkets.
What if too few Republicans and no Democrats voted for it. Leonard asked Singh if he’d lay off SJR O and any objections to the supplemental if he’d agree to a Singh amendment to increase the bond cap $40 million for Heritage Hall.
In this business, a half loaf was better than no loaf, and Singh signed off. Singh won the honor of sponsoring the amendment. The House and Senate approved it overwhelming. The Governor signed it into law.
If everything goes according to plan, we’ll all see a new Capitol visitors’ center in 2 ½ years.
(Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS is at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Eye on Slotkin
News coverage of our members of the U.S. House of Representatives tends to be shallow.
That’s because no local papers can afford to cover them in depth. In fact, only big-city papers with Washington bureaus cover them at all in Washington, D.C., and then only when they make big news. And coverage when they are home tends to be driven by the legislators’ agendas. Often, they will be in town and the media are not even aware of it.
Hence, our new occasional web feature, “Eye on Slotkin,” by Kyle Melinn. He will let you know what the 8th District’s new representative, Democrat Elissa Slotkin is up to, what she is thinking on issues of national and local importance, and how she votes. Look for “Eye on Slotkin” at www.lansingcitypulse.com.