Stinner Questions State Building Cost; Student Journalism Protections Debated

Jan. 31, 2020, 5:40 p.m. ·

An artist's rendering of the proposed new state office building at night (Courtesy Department of Administrative Services)

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A key senator is questioning the cost of a plan to build a new state office building. But Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration insists it will save the state money. And a proposal aimed at protecting student journalists provoked some pushback in the Legislature Friday.

The Ricketts administration wants to have a private developer build a new state office building and parking garage in downtown Lincoln. The structure would be on land the state already owns at 17th and K Streets, which is being used for a geothermal wellfield to heat and cool the Capitol.

A private developer would built the new building, estimated to cost nearly $59 million. The developer would then lease the building back to the state for 30 years, after which the state would own it.

Last year, the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee approved $4 million to come up with the plan. But now, Committee Chairman Sen. John Stinner is questioning whether the plan is a wise use of taxpayer dollars. Stinner bases his questions on the cost per square foot in the new building, compared to what state agencies are paying now.

Sen. John Stinner (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

“The projected lease payments into the new building are going to be $21.35, and that is estimated. That will be over a 30-year period of time. Currently, you’ve got those agencies paying $12.50. So the differential between the two -- the difference – it’s $1.2, $1.3, $1.4 million differential per year. And that is what I’m trying to analyze and trying to understand better,” Stinner said.

Director of Administrative Services Jason Jackson says the plan is a good deal for taxpayers.

Cost comparisons for new state office building. Top shows comparison of annual costs; bottom shows comparison over 30 years. (Source: Department of Administrative Services)

“We expect the state to save money both in the short and the long term,” Jackson said.

Jackson says the agencies that would move into the new building – the Departments of Banking and Finance, Insurance, and Revenue, will pay more per square foot than they do now.

But he says that will be offset by having the largest agency affected by the plan – the Department of Health and Human Services -- be able to move from leased space back into the existing State Office Building.

“Three of the four will be paying more. But the fourth agency impacted by this -- DHHS -- is so large, that the savings are immediate when we aggregate the impact of those four together. And then the savings become exponentially

Director Jason Jackson (Courtesy Department of Administrative Services)

larger over that 30 year period, as we avoid the cost of commercial real estate cost escalation,” he said.

Stinner says the Appropriations Committee is seeking additional information about the plan. But Maher says the Department of Administrative Services is moving ahead with it, because it does not anticipate seeking any additional appropriation.

Also Friday, senators debated a proposal that supporters say is needed to protect student journalists. Sponsoring Sen. Adam Morfeld said that at public hearings, students working for high school newspapers complained about being censored on articles ranging from praising President Donald Trump to warning about the dangers of smoking and vaping.

Morfeld’s bill would say students working for school-sponsored media could not be disciplined for exercising free speech rights, nor could their faculty advisers be retaliated against for protecting those students.

Opponents said that would undermine the authority of local school boards. Sen. Mike Moser argued that authority should be respected.

“To say that high school students having to operate within the supervision of the superintendent or the principal I think as a lot how the real world works. No newspaper is going to let the reporter file a story and have it printed without having it edited and gone before the powers that control the newspaper. You know, if that was the case, a lot of these media would look the same, but they don't look the same. CNN doesn't report the same way. This Fox News reports. There are opinions involved everywhere in media,” Moser said.

Sen. Julie Slama, a conservative Republican in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, supported the proposal by Morfeld, a progressive Democrat.

“LB206 is a solid bill that protects students expressing themselves from across the political spectrum. Keep in mind that this bill protects conservative students being stifled as much as it does liberals or moderates,” Slama said.

And Morfeld argued there’s a difference between private news organizations determining their editorial policy, and publicly-supported student publications.

"This is a taxpayer funded public forum that should be viewpoint neutral. Because we don't want our government going out and telling people that they can say certain things on one hand and not say something on another hand because then what happens is is that administrator or that individual then has the power to engage in viewpoint discrimination," Morfeld said.

Senators ran out of the time scheduled for debate before reaching a vote.. But Morfeld suggested he has enough support to bring the bill back up for further debate.