OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma's nearly 100-year-old Capitol could receive a $160 million face lift under a measure given final approved Thursday by the state Senate, but the financing method is expected to face resistance in the more conservative House.
The bill, approved on a 36-11 vote, authorizes a state bond issue to pay for the repairs. Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, who answered questions about the bill on the Senate floor, told his colleagues: "We can't afford to wait any longer and let this building continue to crumble."
Several Democrats questioned why Senate leaders didn't consider tapping the state's Rainy Day Fund, which currently has a balance of $535 million, but Treat said using bonds was "a fiscally responsible way to do it."
Much of the opposition came from conservative Republicans, some of whom preferred sending the proposal to a statewide vote. But Gov. Mary Fallin, a longtime proponent of repairing the Capitol, praised Senate leaders for acting quickly to pass the plan.
"It's our responsibility to maintain and preserve our seat of government," Fallin said in a statement. "A bond issue is the best, most realistic option for restoring the People's House."
The most obvious sign of problems with the 400,000-square-foot building are yellow barricades erected in 2011, to prevent pedestrians from approaching the south side of the building where large chunks of limestone have been falling from the building's facade. Capitol architect Duane Mass said pieces larger than a softball have fallen from the building.
Mass said rusting metal clips that hold the giant limestone panels in place, along with a faulty repair job in the 1970s, are responsible for the rock and mortar falling from the front of the building, which was constructed over three years from 1914 and 1917.
The inside of the building features polished marble floors, valuable artwork and a stunning dome added in 2002. But behind the walls are major problems, including a plumbing system with rotting pipes that has never been completely restored and a hodgepodge of electrical systems.
The next stop for the bill is the Republican-controlled House, where there has been increasing resistance to the idea of a bond issue.
Newly elected House Speaker Jeff Hickman told a group of newspaper publishers at the Capitol on Thursday that he was embarrassed they had to walk under scaffolding on their way into the building.
"It is an embarrassment that you all come here to your state Capitol and you can't walk in the front door because there are barricades across the front, and you need to be real careful that a piece of the building doesn't fall on you when you're walking in," Hickman said.
Hickman said that while there is a consensus among his GOP colleagues that major repairs are needed, there is no agreement on how those repairs should be funded. The Legislature approved, and the governor signed, a plan last year to divert $120 million from the state's general revenue fund to pay for the repairs — but that bill was ruled unconstitutional by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
With legislators facing an estimated $188 million shortfall this year, the prospect of paying cash for the repairs is unlikely. Among the other ideas being discussed are tapping the Rainy Day Fund, issuing bonds, or sending a bond proposal to a vote of the people.
"We're looking at all those options, and I'm trying to determine from our House members, in the short time that I've been in the speaker's office, what they want to do and what they feel like the best option would be to repair this building," Hickman said.
Online: Senate Bill 2044