Lawmakers consider $2.5 million for fountains, $2 million for state’s 150th

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – Only one person testified against a bill that would spend $2.5 million to build four bronze water fountains in the State Capitol’s four courtyards, as envisioned by the capitol architect in the 1920s.

MAKING A SPLASH: Pencil rendering of a Capitol courtyard with one of the proposed water fountains.

Matt Litt, Nebraska director for Americans for Prosperity, said while it’s important to maintain the state capitol, adding water fountains is not the best use of taxpayer dollars when people are struggling to find jobs.

“Spending $2.5 million to install fountains is an extra,” Litt said during a public hearing on the bill Monday.

New York architect Bertram Goodhue won a nationwide contest to design Nebraska’s state capitol in 1920, and envisioned a bronze fountain in each of the four outdoor courtyards that anchor the capitol tower, which aren’t visible from the street. They were never installed when the capitol was built for about $10 million from 1922 to 1932, when construction was halted during the Great Depression.

Sen. John Nelson, R-Omaha, introduced the bill, saying all of the original capitol design elements envisioned – chiefly murals — were eventually completed except the fountains. Supporters want the fountains to be built to help celebrate the state’s 150th birthday in 2017. A previous attempt to raise the money private only raised about $4,000.

“The state capitol is a treasure,” he said. “It belongs to the people. We owe it to (them to complete it).”

Bob Wickersham, representing the Nebraska Association of Former State Legislators, said the fountains would be a symbol of the importance of water to the state.

Sen. Danielle Conrad, D-Lincoln, said while the capitol is an architectural treasure, she questioned whether the fountains were a “need” or a “want,” given the capitol’s many maintenance needs.

“It snows in my office when the windows are shut,” she said, and paint is peeling off the walls in some hearing rooms. “Our capitol has needs.”

Wickersham said while he realizes the state has finite resources, this would be a one-time expenditure.

“If it was me, I’d spend anything for the capitol,” he said facetiously. “We started the capitol in 1922, surely we can finish it in 2017.”

Lawmakers spent $1 million a year to build the capitol in the 1920s and 1930s, even while ranchers were throwing cattle into trenches because there was no market for them, he said.

“They spent a million dollars a year in times that you or I can imagine because we weren’t there,” Wickersham said. “But they did it.”

Sen. Bill Kintner, R-Papillion, said people want lawmakers to reign in spending and taxes.

“People are saying ‘Holy cow, is there nothing you guys won’t spend money on?’ ” he said.

And while Kintner suggested corporate donations could be sought, Suzanne Wise, director of the Nebraska Arts Council, said that would likely require acknowledgement, such as a sign.

“They do like to see their name displayed very prominently,” she said.

Nelson said a 1934 plaque in the capitol calls for careful preservation of the “jewel among historical monuments.”

Another bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Avery, D-Lincoln, LB704, would transfer $2 million in seed money for the state’s 150th. AFP also testified against that bill.

“Essentially this is a $2 million slush fund to throw a party for the state’s 150th birthday,” Litt said.

Contact Deena Winter at deena@nebraskawatchdog.org. Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog

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