DAVID EGGERT Associated Press
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — LANSING (AP) — It’s been 21 years since work wrapped up on a $58 million restoration of the state Capitol, a National Historic Landmark that remains among the most revered sites in Michigan.
Keeping the building in good shape, though, has proved tougher than expected at the time of the 1992 rededication. Money was tight during recessions and budget deficits. In better times, lawmakers had more pressing priorities or tried avoiding the political awkwardness of sprucing up their own house with taxpayer dollars.
But some legislators say the 135-year-old Capitol can no longer wait. They are pushing a five-bill plan, which may win final legislative approval in December, to overhaul oversight of the building and its grounds, make them a state historic site and create a permanent maintenance fund.
“All we’re doing is taking some general fund money and directing it toward this building. There’s no increase in taxes, no increase in fees,” said Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, a Monroe Republican. “This is an historic building, and we found some leaks, we found some other problems starting to happen and there’s nothing in place to take care of that. I think it’s important that we do take care of this building.”
The main bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Roger Kahn of Saginaw Township unanimously cleared the Senate before lawmakers’ recent two-week fall break. It would create a new commission to maintain the Capitol and oversee area parking lots.
Another Kahn bill still pending on the Senate floor would earmark $3 million a year from tobacco taxes, adjusted for inflation, to a fund for Capitol upkeep and restoration projects, beginning in the 2014-15 fiscal year.
Veteran legislators and officials who’ve long worked at the Capitol say the intent of the legislation is to make decisions about painting the dome and fixing the roof less “political.” Nothing would stop lawmakers from pulling money out of the new fund for other purposes, but supporters say having an ongoing revenue source year in and year out would be better than leaving it to the Legislature to set aside funding for Capitol upkeep during budget fights.
The last state budget included $3 million for Capitol maintenance, some of which was used to install new carpet in the legislative chambers and update technology under their floors — cables for the electronic voting systems, computer wiring and electrical adapters. Hearing loops were installed in the viewing galleries so it’s easier for people with hearing aids and cochlear implants to listen.
Senate Secretary Carol Viventi said she and House Clerk Gary Randall spent up to a dozen years asking to replace the fraying Victorian-era replica carpet that was held together in places with duct tape.
“We just would like not to have the whole building fall into disrepair the way it had for many years,” Viventi said.
Under the legislation, the new commission would include the Senate secretary, House clerk, two people appointed by them with expertise in operating or restoring historic buildings and a gubernatorial appointee, possibly a Capitol architect. The Michigan Capitol Committee, a 12-member panel of legislators and gubernatorial appointees, now makes recommendations about repairs and maintenance to the governor and legislative leaders.
The bills would let the new State Capitol Commission decide on such recommendations.
Viventi said facilities employees have done the best they can with limited funding — mowing the lawn less often, for instance. But there’s a list of projects needing attention, she said, ranging from decorative painting and step repairs to addressing ceiling cracks and aging roofs.
About 115,000 visitors take annual guided tours of the Elijah Myers-designed building modeled after the national Capitol.
Rep. Sam Singh, an East Lansing Democrat, said it was a no-brainer when he was asked to sponsor a related bill that recently passed the House unanimously.
“Historically, we’ve let this building of the people go into disrepair,” he said. “Having an appropriate mechanism to make sure we’re keeping it up to the standards that people want is very appropriate.”