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Capitol Square Project – A Spending Disaster in the Making

Wyoming’s State Capitol renovation project is in trouble, and spin won’t fix it. That’s why a $200,000, three-year communications contract to a well-known Cheyenne firm to sell the project raised a few eyebrows. Legislators questioned whether the project should even go ahead, as the design itself is a long way from finalized. With budget deficits and funding uncertainty, is it right to spend money on propaganda for a project with problems no communications plan could fix?

Companies in the private sector communicate about projects – it is important to keep both employees and the community up to date on events that may affect them. However, Wyoming is in a period of great fiscal uncertainty. Recall that the legislature just diverted rainy day funds to cover a $222 million deficit in the 2015-16 biennium budget, and has an estimated $338 million deficit forecast for the 2017-18 biennium budget. Instead of blowing cash out the door, the state should be looking for savings, and communications is one area to find them.

During the Capitol Building Restoration Oversight Group meeting on May 5, 2015, Gov. Mead said the maximum cost for the entire project will go no higher than $300 million.

This was another eyebrow raiser. The capitol project is now budgeted at $292 million, very close to the governor’s maximum and already about $23 million over budget with design work unfinished. With a $338 million deficit to cover next biennium, the government should be looking for ways to save money instead of engaging in a propaganda exercise to ram a project with a huge potential to go wrong down people’s throats.

According to statute, the oversight committee must approve the final design before construction funding is released.

W.S.9-5-112(e): No funds shall be expended for the purposes of construction until final design plans for the project have been submitted to the advisory task force for review and comment and to the governor and the oversight group for review and a majority of the legislative members of the oversight group has recommended approval and the governor has approved the plans.

In the May 5th meeting, the committee was not provided with a final design and the schematic design they received lacked changes the committee requested back in January.

Sen. Phil Nicholas said, “I arrived today with great disappointment—and anxiety. Given the time from last August to today, I would have expected to see additional work provided—plans and diagrams. We’ve asked for things back in January that are still not supplied.”

Governor Mead agreed with Sen. Nicholas stating that if this is the final statutory checkmark, “no way I’d vote yes on this. The design needs to be more specific.”

Senator Bebout expressed similar reservations. “Senator Nicholas makes a valid point. If we are not ready to make a decision – let’s just hold off. If we move forward – we need the documentation to do that. I am not willing to vote in favor of anything without a different plan.”

In the end, the committee did not approve the final design because they did not get a final design to approve.

It seems the project will require a lot more than propaganda to go ahead. Given the historic importance of the capitol, the committee should hold off and assess whether the building should be maintained as a museum instead of a working building. That could save taxpayers future pain should this project spin out of control.

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Saturday, 23 September 2017
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