Wyoming Liberty Group
Fire and Ice at the State Building Commission
Who knew a State Building Commission (SBC) meeting could include a discussion that perhaps surpassed the limit of orderly conduct? During a presentation on space allocation, a fiery exchange between Senator Phil Nicholas and Secretary of State Ed Murray made it clear that a battle may be brewing over renovation priorities at the Wyoming Capitol. This clash also indicates it may not be so easy for a certain senator to shift the blame for the cost overruns to someone else.
The SBC includes the five elected officials: the Governor, Secretary of State, Auditor, Treasurer and Superintendent of Public Instruction. The SBC’s role is to manage state buildings, including the review and approval of construction budgets.
One would think this would include the Capitol Square Project, but a select committee dominated by the legislature, the Capitol Oversight Group, took control of that project. This takeover resulted in a radical shift of project priorities away from a much-needed basic renovation of the Capitol building to a historic renovation including tourism extras not included in the original budget.
It also added a massive renovation to the Herschler building and the construction of a completely new executive building to house some of the state’s elected officials.
With all these add ons, the project bled red. To keep the project within budget, the Oversight Group dropped the executive building, and part of the Herschler renovation will be left unfinished. But leaving part of the project unfinished and in need of a future appropriation means the project is over budget. It is time to get the budget under control, not shift spending off to another day.
At the request of the Oversight Group, the Capitol Square Project manager, David Hart, gave the SBC a presentation on the space allocation guidelines for the Herschler building renovation, and asked SBC members for comments.
This is when the exchange between Secretary of State Ed Murray and Senator Phil Nicholas began. Secretary Murray said:
“When the electeds looked at the space allocation a year ago we were really getting somewhere. [We had an] Executive building, which we are no longer looking at, and space planners, who understood the functions. In my office we used outside experts to design our space to best suit this process. Now fast forward, no Executive office building. We were presented last Friday with this space planning. I see what you are trying to accomplish but it doesn’t have the thorough and complete responsive analysis that I would appreciate specific to a statewide elected, and to the duties, functions and efficiencies of what we do. I think it is backwards, regarding my space, so do we need to do this? I don’t think we do need to do this.”
This statement got a strong reaction from the most influential member of the Oversight Group, Senator Phil Nicholas. He said “going to agencies and asking them to decide [on the office space allocation] was a total failure. They were $40 million over budget in the Executive building. The proposed floor plan from electeds would further increase the budget.”
This appeared to be nothing more than an attempt to divert blame for the cost overruns from the Oversight Group to the SBC.
Then Senator Nicholas made a rather eyebrow raising statement. He said, “All of the electeds were free to go to legislature and ask for more money to fill out their requests.”
Then, after saying the Elected Officials could lobby the legislature for money to take the project over budget, Senator Nicholas engaged in even more inventive spin doctoring. Referring to the tourism extras at the Capitol, he said, “We asked for $1 million for a greater K-12 experience and were told in no uncertain terms – no. Live within your budget, our colleagues told us. This will not be a Taj Mahal like you want.”
Senator Nicholas’s use of the Taj Mahal reference was ironic given that the desire for a Taj Mahal-like renovation originated with the Oversight Group led by none other than Senator Phil Nicholas. Senator Nicholas is also the person who tried to hide the budget for the tourism extra in a different agency budget.
Senator Nicholas continued to raise eyebrows when he said, “I didn’t see one person lobbying for more money. This has been this subject of multiple public meetings. I did not see the Secretary at single Oversight or task force meeting. This project will be on budget and not the palace folks wanted.”
Secretary Murray and his deputy, Karen Wheeler, have been at multiple Oversight Group meetings, all one needs to do is check the sign in sheet. Also, this author has seen them there.
Senator Nicholas continued by saying, “The days of your own couches are gone. The people with the highest positions have the greatest positions to lobby for their own space. They picked all the exterior windows and left everyone else inside. This will be for the comfort of all employees not to those with the greater ability to lobby for their own space at the cost of everyone else.”
Wait a minute. First the Elected Officials weren't lobbying, then they were for couches and exterior windows. Which is it Senator? Please let us know.
After this muddled diatribe, Secretary Murray did his best to remain calm, but with limited success. He said, “To the extent it is being suggested that the executive branch could have lobbied – that’s insulting. There is nothing more inherent in the integrity of executive branch to have a project under budget, frugal and reflective of great stewardship on behalf of tax dollars of the Wyoming people…. I take offence with the idea I should have been lobbying for another $40 million – that’s BS.”
Senator Nicholas’s contention that the electeds should have lobbied for money to take the project over budget is truly shameful. The pushback from the SBC may mean he will not be successful in his attempt to shift the blame for the cost overruns at the Capitol from the Oversight Group to the SBC. Secretary Murray was right to call him out.
Nothing is going to change until something catastrophic happens and the people of Wyoming then start to pay attention. I am routing for the catastrophe.