John Hanna, Associated Press
TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and legislative leaders on Monday approved what they hope will be the last piece of the financing necessary to finish a $332 million renovation of the Statehouse, remove construction scars from its grounds and build a new visitor center.
They authorized $5.4 million in bonds for the basement-level visitor center as part of a larger plan to ensure the renovation is done by the end of 2013. The plan also will tap $7 million of Department of Transportation funds for work on the grounds.
The renovation, which started in 2001 under Republican Gov. Bill Graves, has upgraded the building's offices, meeting rooms and mechanical systems. Some previously drab rooms and hallways have been restored to their original 19th-century opulence.
But the project also has garnered criticism, as the cost has spiraled to three times some early estimates.
The Brownback administration's plan for financing assumes that $5 million in savings from other parts of the renovation can be dedicated to the new visitor center. About 36,000 tourists now visit the Statehouse annually, down from about 60,000 annually before construction work suspended tours of the building's dome.
"I haven't been the biggest fan of this project, but it's just time to wrap it up," Brownback said Monday. "That's why we put this package together."
The state has used bonds to finance almost all of the renovation, but the Legislature has been increasingly reluctant to authorize additional ones. Legislative leaders had anticipated using private dollars to finance the new visitor center, which will include an auditorium and classroom for school groups, a dining area and the largest public restrooms in the building.
The money from the Department of Transportation will be used to replant grass on parts of the grounds torn up from construction, pave a new driveway on the north side of the building and bring back a road that used to run around the building.
Without the funding approved Monday, even the empty shell of the visitor center would remain closed off, with no main entrance on the north side.
House Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, said until the Brownback administration outlined its proposal for the bonds, he was under the impression that even without that financing, school groups and other tourists still could would be able to come through the shell of the visitor center, rather than navigating an existing maze of basement hallways.
"I think there's been some serious miscommunication," O'Neal said.
Brownback convened a meeting with the Legislature's top eight leaders to consider the additional bonds. The only leader to oppose issuing the bonds was Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican, who said all lawmakers ought to vote on it.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, acknowledged the project has frustrated officials and the state's residents alike as the work has seemed to drag on and increase in cost.
Early estimates said the work would cost between $90 million and $120 million, though that was before legislative leaders added an underground parking garage and approved an expansion of the basement for new offices.
The state also discovered unexpected needs for repairing the exterior stone and replacing copper on the building's roof and dome.
"We are so close to completing this," Davis said. "I think it would be an injustice for us to leave, of all things, the visitors' center, uncompleted."
Kansas governor: https://governor.ks.gov/
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org
Follow John Hanna on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna
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