Others Say: May 22, 2015

Renovating our state Capitol building will be quite expensive

Would you spend $337 million to redo a cake that has a bowling trophy on top?

That description of the Oregon State Capitol might well send some legislators into apoplexy. But face it: The Capitol design always has been controversial. It doesn’t resemble most state capitols.

Its future could be equally controversial. A bipartisan, public committee has recommended rebuilding the Capitol so it won’t disintegrate when The Big One hits. The projected price tag: $337,043,793.

Despite the worth of the project, that price stuns many people, including the Statesman Journal Editorial Board, so we went looking for answers.

They were not hard to find. The project leaders have been upfront about the plans and the prices.

Is the Capitol in sad shape?

Yes. During spring break in 1993, a moderate earthquake shook the Mid-Valley, shaking items off shelves but generally causing little damage in central Salem.

At the Capitol, however, the Rotunda cracked, the building bulged and the Golden Pioneer statue shifted.

The state invested several million dollars in repairs, but the majority of the Capitol remains seismically unsafe. Although its marble exterior presents an illusion of strength, the failure of any structural element could cause the entire building to collapse.

“Given what we know, we should close the Capitol down today. At least we should protect kids from coming in,” Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, told the Editorial Board.

The Capitol hosts 235,000 visitors each year, including 20,000 schoolchildren, along with serving the Legislature, governor, secretary of state, state treasurer and several hundred other employees.

A safer Capitol would help ensure that government still functions during a natural disaster or other crisis.

Why not just build a new Capitol?

The argument for a new Capitol starts with the contention that most Oregonians hold less awe for a Capitol than their politicians do.

The Capitol is less than 80 years old, which hardly counts as historic. Its Art Deco, dome-less design has been derided as a squirrel cage, a paint can or a cake adorned by a bowling trophy.

Although the 1930s building is among America’s newer state capitols, this would be an opportunity to design a unique contemporary building — and presumably at a smaller price tag.

A 2013 report to the Legislature said a “comparably-sized and seismically-safe new legislative office building could be built for between $127 (million) and $145 million, excluding land costs, site work and other expenses.”

The question would be what to do with the Capitol as it now stands. Close it and fence it off? Maintain it as a museum, block some areas from access and hope for the best?

That 2013 report from the Capitol Master Plan Review Committee estimates that rebuilding a comparable Capitol, if the current one were destroyed by earthquake or fire, would cost $300 million to $475 million.

Why rebuild it?

Some buildings hold historic and practical significance. The state recently spent $600 million rebuilding the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, including preserving some historic features.

The Oregon Capitol has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1988, and this year it was ranked among the nation’s most impressive state Capitols. It is arguably the best-known building in Oregon, especially beloved by schoolchildren, who in 1984 raised the money to re-gild the Golden Pioneer.

Is there a precedent?

Utah recently did a seismic retrofit of its 1916 Capitol. Oregon’s approach would be similar, putting shock absorber-style structures beneath the Capitol and making other seismic improvements. Mechanical, fire-suppression and related systems would be upgraded, as would security, since workers would be tearing through walls and ceilings anyway.

While the work is done, the Legislature and other officials would have to vacate the Capitol, probably starting after the 2016 session. The renovated PUC building — the old Sears building — would serve as a temporary Capitol.

Statesman Journal


Filling PERS hole is well worth state Legislature’s efforts

If Oregon government officials were looking for good news from the Supreme Court’s recent ruling rejecting most of the reforms legislators made to the state’s Public Employee Retirement System, it was hard to find.

Well, there was this sliver: The full budgetary impact of the decision won’t kick in until the start of the 2017 fiscal year.

But when the Legislature begins work on the 2017-19 budget, it will start some $319 million in the hole, according to a memo last year from the Legislative Fiscal Office. (The office was asked to assess budget implications should the Supreme Court overturn the PERS reforms.)

And that’s just for state agencies. The state’s school districts will be staring at a $358 million gap, the office concluded.

Overall, the court’s ruling wipes out most of the estimated $5 billion in system-wide accrued liabilities the reforms were expected to save. (The court ruled that it was unconstitutional to adjust cost-of-living adjustments for past service. The court said that it was OK to change those adjustments moving forward and allowed some other reforms to stand, but the ruling eliminates some 90 percent of the estimated savings.)

Considering that looming $600 million-plus budget hole, you would expect legislators to be looking hard at potential other PERS reforms to help toss at least a little dirt in the hole.

In fact, that 2014 memo from the Legislative Fiscal Office outlined some contingency options legislators could consider, including limiting some payroll costs, setting aside funding to mitigate the potential 2017-19 PERS rate increase and revisiting remaining statutory reform options.

Some of that may be taking place in Salem — work continues on the state budget, and it might be a good idea as that process goes on to earmark some additional dough for the state’s reserves.

But there appears to be no appetite in the Legislature to pursue any sort of major PERS reform.

Considering that, the least the Legislature could do would be to hope that the state’s economic recovery continues to gather steam — and to make sure that it doesn’t do anything to derail that recovery. But so far, the signs from the Legislature aren’t promising. The session already has renewed the state’s Clean Fuels Program, a decision that likely jettisoned chances for a transportation package — something that really could have boosted the economy.

Meanwhile, the Legislature continues to ponder measures that could stall the economic recovery, including minimum-wage increases and sick-leave proposals.

The Legislature’s first step toward filling this multimillion-dollar PERS hole should be to make sure that it’s not digging any deeper.

Corvallis Gazette-Times

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