A colossal waste of money

This op-ed was first published in the Sacramento News and Review on February 3rd, 2021. https://sacramento.newsreview.com/2021/02/03/a-colossal-waste-of-money/

All too recently, we anticipated a $54 billion state budget deficit, expecting cuts to funding and resources that would continue the economic onslaught of the pandemic. In the new year, however, we find ourselves with a $15 billion one-time budget surplus, and a proposed 2021-22 budget of $221 billion. We should welcome this good news, as Californians have endured stay-home orders, job loss, and the countless consequences of the devastating pandemic. The Governor’s plan to direct funds to schools, small businesses, and even provide small refunds to taxpayers could mark the beginning of our state’s slow recovery. However, we should urge our Governor and Legislature to spend with caution, and hold them accountable to spending that truly benefits California’s taxpayers.

With the expectation that our elected leaders should serve with the interest of their constituents in mind, it should not be too much to ask that a luxury project which sidelines the needs of Californians should itself be sidelined. This project – known as the Capitol Annex Project – will demolish-and-rebuild the historic Capitol Annex (which houses lawmakers’ offices), build an underground parking structure exclusively for high-ranking elected officials, and construct a visitors center, to the tune of a whopping $1 billion dollars.

To put this sum in perspective, consider similar spending plans outlined in the state’s proposed budget: $1 billion dedicated to the wildfire and forest resilience action plan; $1.1 billion in relief for small businesses; and $1.5 billion to achieve the state’s zero-emission vehicle goals. There is no doubt $1 billion can go far in helping Californians – so why waste it on a project that would only benefit our politicians?

Certainly, ensuring the safety of our legislators’ workplace is important. Yet, experts say that the Capitol Annex can be retrofitted to address health and safety concerns for a fraction of the cost of the legislature’s current plan. Additionally, a “Swing Space” that would house legislators during the Annex rebuild is already funded at $450 million, with office space and parking aplenty, that could be used permanently. As for the visitors center, moving forward with a Disneyland-like attraction during a pandemic is ill-conceived.

Most concerning of all is where the $1 billion project funding will be pulled from – the wallets of taxpayers. Since the project was approved to be funded using revenue bonds in a fiscal emergency, that means we are racking up 30% more in interest on the debt to be repaid over 30 years, ballooning the cost of the project.

To make matters worse, the Capitol Annex scheme was concocted with little to no input from interested parties or the public. The legislature denied project information to the Historic State Capitol Commission – which was created by the legislature in 1976 to protect the State Capitol’s historical and architectural restoration integrity – resulting in the resignation of two commissioners in protest. Why all the secrecy?

Even without the COVID crisis, the Capitol Annex project is a stunning waste of taxpayer dollars – especially when the state has so many pressing matters that need to be addressed. While we can be hopeful about the budget surplus, we need to face the realities of today. Californians are still struggling to put food on the table, many remain unemployed, and many continue to face eviction and homelessness.

While the proposed 2021-22 budget did not include details on the Capitol Annex plan, we should surely keep an eye out for a budget trailer bill, given the Legislature’s continued efforts to cloak the plan in secrecy.

As the Legislature resumes session, they have a responsibility to Californians to focus on our economic recovery, ensuring Californians needs are met first. The Sacramento Taxpayers Association joins other taxpayer groups, small business, preservationists and environmentalists in calling upon Governor Newsom and the legislature to pause the Capitol Annex Project, and re-evaluate its need with input from experts and the public.

W. Bruce Lee is the president of the Sacramento Taxpayers Association, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to promoting efficient, economical government, and fair and equitable taxation which permits a strong, healthy economy, sensible balance and rational control of government expenditures. He can be reached at Bruce.Lee.STA@gmail.com.

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