Stillwater News Press

Columns

March 4, 2014

GOV. MARY FALLIN: The time to fix state Capitol is now

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Capitol was built in 1917. Since then it has been the People’s House — a place where state business is conducted and laws are written and passed. It is also a living museum where schoolchildren and other visitors come to learn about the history of their state and the workings of their government. For many who pass through Oklahoma, it is the lasting impression they have of our home.

I am proud of this building. I am proud of the work that has gone into acquiring and preserving the priceless portraits, paintings and murals that showcase our history. When the dome was completed in 2002, I thought the people of Oklahoma finally had the kind of beautiful, functional Capitol building they deserved.

Unfortunately, the Capitol has been allowed to slowly decompose. Scheduled maintenance and repairs have been put off and unfunded for years.

The results have been predictable: the building that should be a source of pride for our state and its citizens has become an embarrassment and a safety hazard.

The exterior is falling apart, to the point where we must actually worry about employees and visitors being hit by falling pieces of the façade.

The yellow barriers outside are an eyesore and an embarrassment. The electrical system is dangerously outdated.

Raw sewage is literally leaking into our basement. As I told the Legislature in my State of the State address this year, on “good” days you can see the disrepair. On bad days, you can smell it.

It is absolutely essential that this kind of deterioration stops, and we begin the process of restoring and repairing this beautiful building.

That means, first and foremost, finding a funding source.

Oklahoma’s Capitol architect believes repairs will cost $160 million. As a state, we have two ways of coming up with that money: we can pass a bond, and pay back the cost of the repairs over time; or we can appropriate cash from our existing revenue.

Some of our legislators have expressed an interest in paying in cash. They are worried about debt and the added cost of interest. They are fiscal conservatives, like I am, and I understand their motivations. In fact, because Oklahoma is such a conservative state, we have one of the lowest debt rates in the nation.

Having low debt is good, but the fact remains that paying in cash for a large, one-time expense like Capitol repairs can be unrealistic and undesirable. Think of a family buying a $160,000 house. For almost every family, paying in cash is impossible. A responsible loan is the most realistic way to cover that cost. Even for a wealthier family, paying in cash might be possible but undesirable. Sure, a well-off family might be able to free up $160,000 in cash, but they might also have to take their children out of college to do so.

That’s the position the state of Oklahoma is in today. We have a $160 million expense on our hands. Diverting $160 million to Capitol repairs means taking money away from education, public safety, and other very real needs. That’s not fiscally conservative; it’s just irresponsible.

The good news is that, like a mortgage, a bond is a common-sense, affordable alternative. Debt payment would amount to about $10.3 million a year. Furthermore, most of the state’s modest debt is soon coming off the books. In 2018, 41 percent of Oklahoma’s debt will be retired, and more than 86 percent will be eliminated in the next 13 years.

That means a bond for Capitol repairs can be added without significantly adding to state debt in the long term.

Pursuing a bond may also help our credit rating. Last year, state Treasurer Ken Miller and I went to New York City to visit with credit rating agencies like Moody’s. One of the first things they told us was that our state would have trouble getting a better credit rating until we invested more in our infrastructure, including the state Capitol.

All of this means that a bond issue is the best, most realistic way of funding Capitol repairs. I am asking our legislators, as well as all the people in Oklahoma, to lend their voices to the chorus of support for responsible repairs and restoration to one of the great jewels of our state: the People’s House at 23rd and Lincoln.

Mary Fallin is governor of Oklahoma.

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