ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Five Republicans running for Minnesota governor stood united Thursday in their opposition to a planned Senate office building but showed slight separation from one another on the hot-button issue of medical marijuana.
The candidates held a rare joint news conference at the Capitol to showcase their distaste for a government building they said represents misplaced priorities by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and his party's legislative leaders. The glass-faced structure — given preliminary approval last year — is due to rise in the shadow of the Capitol and cost $90 million when two nearby parking ramps are included.
The GOP hopefuls tried to outdo each other with the superlatives. Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson called it a "monument" to government; former state Rep. Marty Seifert labeled it "opulent;" state Sen. Dave Thompson used "decadent;" businessman Scott Honour went with "palatial;" and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers opted for "wasteful and unnecessary."
The office building has been attached to the broader renovation of the state Capitol. Senators will be forced out beginning next summer and need at least temporary space. Supporters of the new building argue it would open up more Capitol corridors to the public.
But the Republicans noted that the new plan also greatly expands the office footprint of the governor when the Capitol fix is completed in 2017. Dayton and his staff must relocate to a temporary office this summer and the governor won't return for years.
Seifert argued Dayton could still scuttle the project by not allowing his Department of Management and Budget sell the bonds to cover construction. "It's not a done deal," he said.
Zellers ridiculed the design and noted that it won't even house all 67 senators in a Legislature that meets only three to five months per year. They said the money that will be paid back through a lease-to-own mechanism could have been better spent on other things.
"It's the fact that it demonstrates a focus on St. Paul," said Thompson, referring to the seat of state government. "The Democrats have focused on taking care of legislators and taking care of bureaucrats and taking care of union bosses and not taking care of the people."
Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson dismissed the criticism as "scoring political points for the next election." He said the "once-in-a-generation" restoration project commands that leaders are focused on long-term needs. The House Rules Committee has the final legislative sign-off on the plan, but no meeting for that vote has been scheduled.
Meanwhile, the candidates weighed on a controversial proposal to allow marijuana for medical uses.
The issue has vexed Dayton, who has come under fire from advocates for how he's handled it. He offered a study that fell short of what some supporters wanted and was accused of telling the mother of one sick child to buy the drug illegally if necessary. His office hasn't fully disputed nor confirmed the allegation.
Among the Republicans, only Thompson and Johnson said they would be open to the possibility of signing a bill, but not the plan currently before lawmakers. Johnson referenced an Illinois medical marijuana model that had strict access and prescribing techniques as something he'd be comfortable endorsing.
"If we can control production and distribution like we do other prescription drugs I am open to it," Thompson said. "But I do not support the current bill that is out there."
Zellers and Seifert voted against a medical marijuana plan in 2009, which then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed.
"I haven't seen a medical marijuana bill I can support," Zellers said, a position largely echoed by Seifert.
Honour said he is sympathetic to arguments for the drug. But he said marijuana should be handled at a federal level through normal channels of approving prescription drugs.
"It shouldn't be left to states to decide in some way that works separately from every other drug use in this country in terms of drugs used purely for medical purposes," Honour said.
The GOP will settle on a nominee to take on Dayton in August.