Lawmakers must find bearings in new Idaho Capitol

AP News
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Posted: Dec 28, 2009 10:49 AM

Beneath Idaho's Capitol dome, Bob Geddes lost his bearings. Not his political bearings; the Soda Springs Republican remains Senate president.

But in an underground hallway excavated during $122.5 million worth of expansion and renovations these past two years, Geddes recently became disoriented. Pointing toward Senate meeting rooms, he said, "This is the House side. I think."

The eight-term lawmaker is to be forgiven. The century-old Capitol is now 50,000 square feet bigger.

While Geddes kept his office outside of the Senate's third-floor chambers, other less-senior lawmakers face the task of acquainting themselves with the fastest route from new underground quarters to wherever they're heading: Honduran mahogany-paneled hearing rooms, the basement gift shop or maybe "statuary hall," a fourth-floor public area with barrel ceiling and beaux arts columns that mirrors its 1912 appearance _ only with wireless public Internet.

After two sessions in the cramped old Ada County Courthouse, there may still be a few hiccups.

"That is going to be one of the biggest challenges, people finding their way around," said Robyn Lockett, Capitol services coordinator. "It's a whole new world over here."

Maps will be available at the visitor's desk located in the basement, what Capitol officials call "the garden level."

The Capitol won't officially open until a Jan. 9 ceremony, though officials like Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter have already reoccupied their traditional quarters. Otter's are on the second floor.

Gone is the fourth-floor "Gold Room," previously the building's biggest meeting room.

A west-wing auditorium, complete with a sloping theater-style seating area, is more than twice the size, with capacity for 240. Nearby, the Senate and House dining room has space for 76 hungry lawmakers, family members or guests. As always, no lobbyists or reporters are allowed inside.

And the small dome above where budget writers meet on the third floor has been shored up, in case of earthquakes. That's probably not a bad thing, considering the expected rumble over cost cutting needed to close another $50 million 2010 budget hole.

Just who is paying for this work, including the $2 million restoration on green-veined faux marble called scagliola that adorns rotunda columns?

Cigarette smokers.

Annually, $20.1 million of the roughly $44 million raised by Idaho's 57-cent-per-pack tax goes to pay off $130 million in bonds sold in 2006. The final installment, about $12 million, will be made in 2014.

Smokers in surrounding states who make runs across the border to take advantage of Idaho's lower cigarette prices are helping pick up the tab _ at their own peril, it turns out. If Washington State Patrol troopers catch their residents with Idaho cigarettes in the trunk, there's a smuggling penalty of $250, or $10 a pack, whichever is greater.

"Washingtonians that are breaking the law are helping pay the bill over there," Mike Gowrylow, a Washington State Department of Revenue spokesman.

Idaho officials began their push to renovate the Capitol in 1998. In 2001, lawmakers set aside $64 million for the project, only to raid that stash after the recession that struck later that year.

By 2005, Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, was pushing to add two-story underground wings, similar to those at the Texas Statehouse. The old Ada County Courthouse and Borah Post Office would temporarily house state government during the work.

In early 2007, however, that plan almost collapsed, as lawmakers duked it out with Otter. He favored clipping the wings and spreading government to existing state-owned buildings. A compromise emerged, with Otter and the Legislature agreeing to just a single underground level.

Even after demolition workers finally cordoned the building off with cyclone fence in 2007, challenges remained.

By last January, unexpected delays _ in the form of crumbling walls and rotten concrete _ had pushed workers a month behind schedule, causing jitters among some lawmakers over whether they would actually be back in the building come 2010.

Managers added crews and scheduled Saturday shifts. By summer, the project was back on track.

Gary Daniel, Idaho Capitol Commission spokesman, still expects to see a few hard hats in January working on finishing touches. Still, he said, there's no longer any danger of lawmakers not returning in just a few weeks to a building fit for the rigors of state government _ hopefully through at least 2110.

"This is supposed to be a 100-year fix," he said.