Panel approves plans to move Tennessee legislative offices

In this July 2, 2013, file photo, a woman walks past the Cordell Hull Building in Nashville.

NASHVILLE -- The State Building Commission has approved the first step toward making a building next to the state Capitol the new home of the Tennessee General Assembly.

The panel that includes Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville and fellow Republican House Speaker Beth of Nashville on Wednesday without debate approved expanding the scope of a $136 million Capitol complex project. That includes the overhaul of the Cordell Hull building that was until recently designated for demolition.

Gov. Bill Haslam's administration last year reversed course on razing the building, and has earmarked $74 million to renovate it. Lawmakers later decided the building would make a good replacement for the underground Legislative Plaza.

The costs of the move and upgrades to fit the Legislature's needs are estimated at $44 million.

"It's a good business decision to do that," Ramsey told reporters after the meeting. "This is terrible down here -- we're spending more on maintenance in this place than it's worth."

"Is it a lot of money? Yeah, no doubt about it," he said. "But two-thirds of that was going to be spent whether we do anything or not."

The 40-year-old Legislative Plaza would be turned into a parking garage under the plan, and a building next to the Cordell Hull would be torn down to make place for more parking.

Ramsey refuted a rumored deal with the Haslam administration that the Legislature would be given the Cordell Hull building in exchange for agreeing to the $120 million the governor had earmarked for a new state museum.

"That's a bunch of bull, because that was in the budget before we even thought about the Cordell Hull," he said.

Ramsey said the Senate even wanted to go further by approving $89 million for a new building for the State Library and Archives.

"The Senate was all in favor of going ahead, and it was the House that kept the brakes on that," he said.

The Cordell Hull building currently can hold about 1,000 workers, but only about a third of it is occupied by agencies like the attorney general's office and the Department of Children's Services.

Ramsey joked that the refurbished building would include prime space for the Capitol press corps, despite the dwindling number of reporters covering the Legislature full time.

"The penthouse would be for the press -- all three of you," he said.