OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma House overwhelmingly defeated legislation Tuesday that would authorize up to $160 million in bonds to repair the state's nearly 100-year-old Capitol.
By a vote of 62-34, House members rejected the Senate-passed measure that is one of Republican Gov. Mary Fallin's top priorities for the 2014 Legislature. The bill's author, Rep. Skye McNeil, R-Bristow, kept the measure alive by serving notice that she may ask the House to reconsider the vote.
Lawmakers who opposed the measure indicated they agree that the Capitol, one of the state's most visited tourist attractions, needs extensive repairs, but did not like how the state planned to pay for them.
"I really believe there is a better way of doing this," said Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore. He said that excessive bonded indebtedness has caused financial problems for cities and other states, burdened future generations in those places.
Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, was one of several lawmakers who said the bond issue needs to be placed on a statewide referendum.
"It has to go to a vote of the people," said Reynolds, who said the constitutionality of a bond issue authorized solely by the Legislature would likely be challenged in court.
Rep. Steve Vaughan, R-Ponca City, said payments on bond debts would cost $870,000 a month.
"To do what? To get out of debt," Vaughan said. "This is the people's house. Let's go to the people and ask them what they want to do."
Other opponents suggested the Legislature authorize a pay-as-you-go approach by appropriating available revenue or taking money from the Rainy Day fund, the balance of which is about $535 million. Attempts by Rep. Ben Sherrer, D-Choteau, to amend the bond plan to authorize $160 million in Rainy Day funds to pay for Capitol repairs were unsuccessful.
Supporters of the bond proposal said problems with the building are too serious to continue to ignore.
"This building is a source of state pride," said Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove, who said the building's deteriorating condition is embarrassing. "Let's fix it up right."
Oklahoma's Capitol opened in 1917, and years of deferred maintenance have contributed to its many problems. Parts of the 452,000-square-foot building have been cordoned off by yellow barricades since 2011 to prevent pedestrians from approaching the building's south side, where chunks of limestone and mortar have fallen from the building's facade.
A detailed examination of the building found a concrete beam above the south portico is crushing the brick that supports it, as well as antiquated piping, plumbing and electrical wiring. There is also extensive cracking of the terrazzo floor in the building's lower level.
Like other opponents, Democratic Leader Scott Inman of Oklahoma City said he supports repairing the Capitol but cannot justify voting for a bond issue when the state already faces a $188 million budget shortfall and lawmakers are considering cutting the state's top 5.25 percent income tax rate by a quarter percentage point, which would reduce state revenue by about $150 million when fully implemented.
"Doesn't make any sense. It's fiscally irresponsible," Inman said. "If you're going to vote for that tax cut, how in the world do you justify voting for this?"
Following the vote, House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, encouraged the Senate to take up House-passed legislation that would ask voters to authorize a $120 million bond issue for Capitol repairs.
"I hope the Senate will continue to have the conversation with us," Hickman said. "Allow us to have a solution this year."
Online: Senate Bill 2044