Analysis: New repair work, more needed at Louisiana Capitol

Louisiana

Workers erect scaffolding at the Louisiana Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La. A new phase of building repairs has started to replace mortar on the walls of the House and Senate chambers. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The Louisiana Capitol cost $5 million to complete nearly 90 years ago, but its ongoing repair needs total tens of millions of dollars today, little of which has been earmarked for the upkeep project to ensure the historic Art Deco building can remain the seat of government for decades to come.

Barricades and scaffolding are going up for the latest maintenance work, part of an ongoing effort to stop deterioration of a building that requires a temporary covered walkway out front to protect visitors to the 34-story structure from the risk of falling mortar eroded by water damage.

That unattractive entrance canopy has sullied the Louisiana Capitol’s appearance for two years — and isn’t going away anytime soon, since the extensive repairs needed to keep the mortar from crumbling have no timeline for completion.

The building, completed in 1932, is the United States’ tallest capitol structure and houses the legislative branch, the governor’s office and the offices of many other statewide elected officials. Former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Huey Long pushed for its construction, and it became the site of his shooting. Long is buried out front in the gardens under a statue bearing his likeness.

The latest $6 million repair and waterproofing project started last month, financed through Louisiana’s annual construction budget. Senate President Page Cortez said plywood was added around some of the scaffolding amid national concerns about protesters objecting to the presidential election results who might seek to gain access to capitol buildings.

The Louisiana Capitol’s current maintenance project involves digging out and replacing mortar that fills cracks between the limestone slabs on certain walls of the House and Senate chambers and restoration of brass windows in each chamber, said Jacques Berry, spokesman for Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Division of Administration, which oversees the work.

Additional repair work needed could cost $75 million or more.

That includes $18 million estimated to complete the mortar work, waterproofing and maintenance of the remaining walls and windows in the House and Senate chambers, along with the floors housing the governor’s office and the very highest levels of the building, Berry said. Those phases also involve roof replacements for the House and Senate chambers.

But the largest repair cost, estimated up to $60 million, involves the mortar work and maintenance required on the tall tower portion of the Capitol, from the seventh through 26th floors. Berry said the price tag is so hefty because of the scaffolding that will have to be erected to do the work.

Lawmakers haven’t approved any financing to pay for repairs beyond the current phase.

Cortez, a Republican from Lafayette, said he hasn’t had any conversations with the Edwards administration or others about how to finance the full building repairs. But he said the dollars would have to come either through state construction borrowing or surplus cash.

The Louisiana Legislature is sitting on $85 million in off-the-books surplus cash, according to the latest audits reports released this month.

The dollars have been stored away for years with little discussion. They aren’t included in yearly legislative spending plans, but notification is buried in annual financial reports for the House, Senate and other legislative agencies filed by the legislative auditor’s office.

Republican former Senate President John Alario had said the Legislature accrued the fund balances in case the House and Senate ever were at odds with a governor who decided to block financing and stymie a separate branch of government’s work. The dollars aren’t publicly discussed in budget hearings.

The House has identified some office renovations, computer upgrades, committee room improvements and employee benefit obligations that could use up some of the cash. But $55 million spread across the House, Senate and a joint legislative agency that shares expenses across the chambers isn’t assigned to any possible future expense, according to the audits.

Cortez said he and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder haven’t identified any specific use for the cash, saying legislative leaders have been preoccupied with the ongoing, immediate problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic that began shortly after they took office.

The legislative surplus certainly is a sum of cash that could be spent on repairing the building where lawmakers do their work.

Copyright 2020 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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