Thunder Dome

There are already runaway costs for a state Capitol remodel that few people know about.

As president of the Oregon Senate for 12 years, Courtney, 71, has amassed more influence than almost any other legislator in state history. The Democrat from Salem—whose affection for the institution of the Legislature is almost religious—has put that power to work. 

In his official biography, Courtney cites two major accomplishments: He spearheaded construction of a new Oregon State Hospital, and he convinced lawmakers and voters that the Legislature should meet annually, ending the every-other-year schedule that was as old as statehood.

Courtney—a snowy-haired lawyer-turned-professor who recently retired from Western Oregon University—has alternately used charm and bluster to work on his colleagues. That's on top of the power of the Senate president to grant or withhold political favors.

What Courtney wants now is a renovation of the Oregon Capitol, the 77-year-old art deco edifice that's the seat of the Legislature, home to the governor's office and scene of much of the state's political history. 

Courtney argues the state needs to shore up the building against earthquakes and replace aging pipes, wiring and vents.

"It is time now to move to the point where we start to rebuild this wonderful old building," Courtney said before a legislative committee last week. “She is hurting. She is suffering.” 

This time, Courtney is not resorting to charm or bluster. He's relying on secrecy.

The projected price tag of renovating the state Capitol has soared to $337 million, according to documents obtained by WW. That's a 34 percent jump in costs since a study encouraged by Courtney was released in 2009.

But Courtney has not revealed the dramatically higher costs to his colleagues.  When he appeared before a legislative committee May 8 to talk about the renovation plan, he didn't disclose the project's new, higher cost.

"They didn't ask me," Courtney tells WW.

Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, sits on the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee—a panel that should be aware of what major projects will cost.

But Whitsett says he didn't learn about Courtney's plan until a lobbyist slipped him a copy of the project's budget.

"To focus that kind of money on this building makes no sense," Whitsett says. "We can pass laws in the parking lot if necessary."

Under any circumstances, a $337 million remodel of the Capitol would be a tough sell. Courtney wants to use a big chunk of the state's debt capacity to fix up the Capitol building.

Courtney wants the state to borrow $161 million this year to begin the project. That puts pressure on the state's bonding capacity and could squeeze out money for seismic upgrades for other public buildings such as courthouses and hospitals.

Earthquake vulnerability was the chief selling point for the 2013 Legislature, which in the final days of that session allocated $34.5 million to a design phase of the project.

“It is not just about the earthquake,” Courtney testified last week. “It involves much more than that.” 

The "much more" includes four new hearing rooms and significant upgrades to the plumbing, electrical, and heating and cooling systems.

The plan also includes what Whitsett calls "largesse": a 4,700-square-foot cafe, a 2,500-square-foot hangout space for lobbyists, and a 3,000-square-foot "legislative lounge."

Whitsett says the project exemplifies skewed priorities. "Three-thousand square feet—that's a pretty good-sized house," he adds.

Courtney said the project's price increased after early design work revealed the seismic retrofit would need to be larger than expected. Neither he nor legislative staff, however, can yet say how much of the $337 million price tag is for the retrofit and how much is for remodeling.

Whitsett says if lawmakers are going to spend money on seismic retrofits, they should focus on public buildings located in areas of greatest seismic risk, such as the coast or along fault lines in Eastern Oregon. 

“I cannot fathom how we can prioritize this building over schools,” he says. 

A 2007 state survey rated the seismic risk at half  of Oregon’s 2,109 public school buildings for K-12 as “high” or “very high.” 

The big ask Courtney wants to make for the Capitol could look disproportionate by comparison.

On April 30—perhaps anticipating criticism of the Capitol project—Courtney's office issued an unusually detailed press release about his interest in finding $200 million for seismic work on schools.

In an interview with WW, Courtney called questions about the Capitol renovation budget "an assault" on his work. He says he's been trying to bring public attention to seismic risks since 1999 and is fully committed to funding upgrades for schools, hospitals, public safety buildings and roads.

He notes there can be as many as 1,000 people in the Capitol every day. That number includes visitors, staff, 90 legislators, other elected officials (the governor, treasurer and secretary of state) and more than 400 registered lobbyists.

But Courtney says he's tired of people questioning his motives for upgrading the Capitol.

"Some generation of legislators is going to have to fix this building," he says. "It's taken me years to get people to take this seriously. I've gone through hell to get this issue out there.”