This morning, former House Ways and Means Commmittee Chairman Jim Knoblach held a press conference to announce he was filing a lawsuit to stop construction of the new Senate Office Building. Here’s the explanation for Chairman Knoblach’s lawsuit:

Former State Representative Jim Knoblach (R–St. Cloud) is filing a lawsuit today to stop the new $90 million Senate Office Building, currently under design. The lawsuit claims the building’s authorization in the 2013 Omnibus Tax Bill violates Article IV, section 17 of the Minnesota Constitution.

“Spending $90 million on an office building to house a few dozen Senators and staff is an incredible waste,” said Knoblach. “We aren’t increasing the number of Senators. Temporary difficulties due to the Capitol renovation can be met by sharing hearing rooms at the State Office Building, and using other existing state buildings near the Capitol.”

Article IV, section 17 of the Minnesota Constitution reads: “Laws to embrace only one subject. No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.”

Recent laws struck down under this single subject provision include:

1) a prevailing wage provision authored by then Rep. Tom Bakk in the 1997 Omnibus Tax Bill (Associated Builders and Contractors v. Ventura; Minnesota Supreme Court, 2000);
2) the Minnesota Personal Protection Act when first included in a DNR technical correction bill (Unity Church v. State of Minnesota; Minnesota Court of Appeals, 2005). The bill was struck down even though the Personal Protection Act was mentioned in the title.

“There is no legal justification for authorizing a new building in the tax bill,” said Erick Kaardal, the attorney representing Knoblach. “The subject of the tax bill is taxes, not building new buildings.”

This is a strong lawsuit. First, Chairman Knoblach has the clearly written text of the Minnesota Constitution on his side. Second, he’s got multiple precedents on his side, too.

When I spoke to him, Chairman Knoblach said that courts have given the legislature some latitude with the Single Subject Clause of the Minnesota Constitution, though he noted that the rulings cited above have sent the message to the legislature that there are limits to that latitude.

This information is damning towards Senate Majority Leader Bakk:

On April 24, 2013, H.F. 677, the Omnibus Tax Bill, was marked up in the Senate Taxes Committee. Senator Ann Rest offered an amendment to include language providing for the Senate Office Building, including $3 million for predesign and design, and language authorizing the state to sign a lease-purchase agreement to construct the building.

Senate Minority Tax Lead Julianne Ortman objected, stating “…this is a surprise…we haven’t had a hearing on this in this committee…this should be in the bonding bill…I will be voting no.” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk spoke in favor of the amendment, saying that “…bonding bills often times get caught up in end of session politics, and the Capitol renovations transcend politics and should be at a level above the political maneuvering that gets done at the end of session.” The amendment passed on a divided vote with several members voting no. (Source: Committee hearing video tape).

That’s quite interesting. Sen. Bakk admitted that the construction project was a bonding project. He’s right about that, which means the project requires 60% of senators to pass it, then 60% of House members to approve it.

That’s a delicate situation to finesse, especially right prior to an election. Spending $90,000,000 on a new office building to house politicians while the Capitol is refurbished doesn’t make for good politics in swing districts. Further complicating matters is the fact that this isn’t a tiny project. This would be one of the biggest bonding projects in recent history.

The other thing that’s worth mentioning is that Sen. Bakk put a prevailing wage provision “in the 1997 Omnibus Tax Bill” that was struck down. That begs the question why Sen. Bakk thinks the single-issue clause in the Minnesota Constitution is irrelevant.

The most likely answer is that Sen. Bakk will throw Minnesota’s Constitution out if that’s what’s needed to satisfy the DFL’s special interest allies.

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