Could lawsuit over Senate building undo Mayo Clinic's expansion funding?
ST. PAUL — A lawsuit filed Thursday to block construction of a $90 million Senate office building has the potential to undo the $585 million funding package to support Mayo Clinic's expansion.
Former St. Cloud Republican Rep. Jim Knoblach filed a lawsuit in Ramsey District Court against the state alleging the office building's authorization was unconstitutional. His case centers on a provision in the Minnesota Constitution that prohibits a bill from having more than one subject.
"This building was authorized in the omnibus tax bill, which is about taxes — not building new buildings," he said during a state Capitol press conference.
While Knoblach's lawsuit seeks to strike out the authorization for the office building from the tax bill, he said it's possible the courts could decide to strike down the entire tax bill. That legislation includes funding for Mayo's Destination Medical Center.
Mayo Clinic spokesman Karl Oestreich said these types of lawsuits have been tested in the courts, and the plaintiffs rarely succeed.
"We don't think this will succeed, and we're pretty confident that what's in the state sections related to taxes and DMC will remain and continue to move forward," he said.
Knoblach noted there have been two recent cases where the courts struck down provisions in larger bills because they violated the one-subject rule. That was the case in 2000, when the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a requirement in a 1997 omnibus tax bill requiring school districts spending more than $100,000 on a building project to follow prevailing wage laws violated the one subject rule. The court let the rest of the tax bill stand, only striking the prevailing wage provision.
Even though Knoblach's's lawsuit only deals with the office building, he said he believes another provision requiring prevailing wage to be paid on all DMC projects that have a local match also might violate the one-subject rule.
'Wait and see'
DMC bill sponsor state Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, said the Mayo expansion language went through the legislative process and was heard in several committees. She said that language is pretty standard on large construction projects, including the Mall of America. As for the Senate office building issue, that will be for the courts to decide.
"Anybody can file a suit against anything," Norton said. "If it will stand up in court remains to be seen. I think we'll have to wait and see."
The Senate office building project has been a target of legislative Republicans, some of whom have dubbed it the Senate's "Taj Mahal." Knoblach said the project is an outrageous use of taxpayer dollars. He argues that this type of project needs to be part of a bonding bill instead of being tucked into a massive tax bill.
"We do not need to spend $90 million on a building for a few dozen senators and staff that are only going to be here for a few months a year," he said.
Preliminary design work on the building is already underway, and the House and Senate Rules committees are expected to vote on the plans in January, said Minnesota Department of Administration spokesman Curt Yoakum. If approved, the groundbreaking would occur in late February or March.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said in a statement that the lawsuit "does not contain any legitimate concerns." He added that the project was part of the public finance section of the tax bill, which has long been a component of tax bills. He said this is consistent with past legislation for similar construction projects, and it was vetted by legislative counsel and public finance experts.
"I fear the only result of this suit will be the waste of taxpayer resources on legal expenses and the potential costs associated with delaying the project," he said.
Senate Minority reaction
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, issued a statement attacking the building project.
"Republican senators opposed this building project from the start. We voted to eliminate this giant wasteful provision that spends over $90 million on a new building for politicians," Hann said.
Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, differs with his party when it comes to the issue. He voted for the tax bill and supports the office building construction. He contends that the current set up, where the majority party has its office in the Capitol building and the minority party is across the street in the State Office Building, has fostered partisanship.
"If we are ever going to have a little bit more cordiality, collegiality and working together within the framework of the Minnesota Senate, we ought to be housed together," Senjem said.
As for the potential impact to DMC, Senjem said he is confident lawmakers would pass the legislation a second time if necessary.
"It's America. Let the legal process commence; let it play out," said Senjem, who was the Senate DMC bill author. "If the single subject rule is violated and the tax bill needs to be redone and Destination Medical Center is affected, we'll just deal with it."