Capitol annex project: A textbook example of a boondoggle

By Quentin L. Kopp
Capitol Weekly

The California State Legislature convened under extraordinary circumstances in December for the 2021 legislative session. While the Senate met at the state Capitol, the Assembly gathered a few blocks away at the Golden 1 Center, in order to achieve social distance.

As newly elected officials were sworn in, some of their constituents across the state faced a new stay-at-home order that would close their restaurants, businesses, salons, and more, in a sweeping effort to contain the spread of COVID-19.

As legislators reconvened this month, they returned to a relatively empty Capitol building. Why, then, are they pursuing a $1.3 billion Capitol annex “renovation” project?

Cognitive dissonance is the most charitable explanation I can conjure for this costly boondoggle proceeding amidst the COVID-induced economic disaster that’s destroying the lives of Californians and plunging countless in the state into poverty.

I don’t believe the state can afford to use lease revenue bond money for a billion-dollar project while Californians struggle to survive during an unprecedented pandemic.

Approved by the Legislature in 2018, the Capitol annex project will demolish and rebuild the East Annex, tear up Capitol Park to build a parking garage exclusively for high-ranking legislators and bureaucrats, and excavate the “West Steps” of the Capitol building to create a visitor center. Never mind that a new, $400 million office building is being built to house legislators just across the street. And, forget the fact that the Capitol Annex building could be renovated to improve health and safety at a fraction of the cost.

Ensuring the safety of lawmakers and preserving the historic state Capitol and its surrounding grounds can thus be accomplished, yet our elected leaders have refused to acknowledge the valid objections to this project.

This isn’t the first time legislators have tried to bypass the rules and spend exorbitant funds on a “pet project”. When I represented San Francisco and San Mateo County as a state Senator, fellow legislators and I led an effort to eliminate $45 million to demolish and construct a new Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles.

Like the Capitol annex, that building was to be demolished and rebuilt to meet safety requirements. Yet, we felt that the rules meant to protect historic buildings were being circumvented by Los Angeles legislators, at a shocking cost to taxpayers. The scenario is deplorably familiar to the Capitol annex effort.

I don’t believe the state can afford to use lease revenue bond money for a billion-dollar project while Californians struggle to survive during an unprecedented pandemic. I persuaded the Senate Budget Committee to eliminate funding for the Museum of Science and Industry, and believe the state Capitol deserves similarly to be protected and preserved by stopping the project.

Since the planning and approval of the Capitol annex project occurred behind closed doors, even barring the Historic State Capitol Commission, other public testimony and feedback from native communities, many Californians are likely unaware of this costly and wasteful project. How can they be expected to know what’s going on as they face the many costs of the pandemic?

The seemingly never-ending stay-at-home orders are accelerating permanent closures of independently owned restaurants, shops, salons, gyms and more businesses. We need to get children back in school and parents back to work.

Now more than ever, our “public servants” need to put the needs of their constituents first. We need to tell our legislators that state taxpayer dollars should not be spent on a vanity project but should instead be directed toward small businesses, schools, and local economies.

As we all do our part to end this horrible pandemic, it’s time for politicians in Sacramento to understand the truly dire straits of Californians, rethink the Capitol annex project, and concentrate on helping the people they’ve been elected to represent, as public servants.

Editor’s Note: Quentin L. Kopp is president of the San Francisco Taxpayers Association, a former San Francisco Supervisor, state Senator and Superior Court judge.