This week we're taking a look at how much money is being spent in Oregon and Washington to consolidate government data centers.
In Olympia, a $300 million complex is currently going up on the edge of the Capitol Campus. It's one of the priciest state construction projects in a decade - on the scale of Seattle's Qwest Field.
The vote to build this mega-project came in the waning hours of this year's Washington legislative session. Now some lawmakers want to revisit that very expensive decision.
Austin Jenkins has part two of our series “The Data Center Debate.”
Sunday night, April 26th. The final moments of Washington's 2009 legislative session. In one of the last acts before adjournment, the State Senate takes up two-year Capital Construction budget.
Committee Chair Karen Fraser, an Olympia Democrat, rises to speak.
Karen Fraser: “Thank you Mr. President. Well, we're finally here after endless meetings, analyses, spreadsheets ….”
Everyone is dog tired. Debate is brief before the final vote.
Lt. Gov Brad Owen: “The question before the Senate is the final passage of ESSB 1216”
The capital budget passes on a mostly party-line vote. It's an especially sweet victory for Senator Fraser because of what appears on page 244 of the 260-page bill.
There - in just a few lines - is authorization for the Department of Information Services - the state's IT department - to build a nearly 400,000 square foot complex a couple of blocks from the state capitol.
It will include a new state data center, office building and parking garage - all of it in the heart of Senator Fraser's district. The project is projected to create more than a thousand jobs.
Karen Fraser: “That's a nice spin-off, but that wasn't any reason for me to support it.”
Fraser says she backed the project because of its potential to save taxpayers money - by consolidating more than 40 data centers into one more energy efficient building.
Several months after the vote, Fraser recalls how she had to negotiate right up to the end to keep the data center project in the capital budget. That's because her counterpart in the House - fellow Democrat Hans Dunshee - didn't support it.
Sen. Karen Fraser: “On some issues he's strongly opposed and you know it and this was kind of somewhere in between.”
Fraser recalls the data center was the last project they agreed on as they negotiated the remaining differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget. She remembers it was late - probably 11:30 at night.
Karen Fraser: “By that time we're both pretty tired, I was coming down with a cold.”
In the end, Fraser got her way. She says for such a significant project, it wasn't a big, dramatic moment. Dunshee has his own recollection.
Hans Dunshee: “Senator Fraser was a significant advocate for this project. It's in her district. In this time of no jobs - building something like that is a huge economic boom. I just don't think we should build pyramids. I think we should build things that work. And her and I respectfully disagree on that.”
Dunshee says while he opposed the data center, he wasn't willing to blow up the entire capital budget over one project.
He recalls a flurry of lobbying for the data center in the waning days of the session. First, he says, came the building trades unions. Then lobbyists hired at the last minute by the developer on the project - Wright Runstad out of Seattle.
Dunshee remembers they pulled him off the floor of the House.
Hans Dunshee: “I'm called out and somebody says to me 'hey I'm lobbying for Wright Runsted about this project' and this was a late hire, end of the session. But there were a bunch of people pushing for this thing.”
Dunshee, who's known in Olympia for not mincing words, says most lawmakers - himself included - don't know much about data storage.
Hans Dunshee: “I think this project should have had a lot more review up front by people who know abut this stuff. For me the alarms went off just at the size of it and it was pretty much on a steamroll at that point.”
Today Dunshee is experiencing buyers' remorse. And he isn't alone. Another Democratic lawmaker - freshman Reuven Carlyle of Seattle - thinks the project is a taxpayer boondoggle.
This summer, Carlyle and Dunshee even wrote a letter to Governor Chris Gregoire. It said in part: “we are deeply troubled by the weakness of the technical and financial support behind this decision, and fear the state is potentially making a $300 million mistake that will haunt us for decades to come.”
The governor rejected their request to re-evaluate the project. The bonds were sold and the data center train left the station.
Austin Jenkins: “This is the data center construction site. It's right along the on-ramp to Interstate 5 as you leave the Washington State Capitol Campus. Right now this construction site is a giant plastic-lined pit with lots of construction activity underway.”
Sen. Fraser remains a supporter of the project. But she admits she got most of her information from the Governor's budget office and the Department of Information Services - the agency leading the project.
She says no one lobbied her against it. Fraser says if there's now a groundswell of support for scrubbing the data center portion of the project and just building an office complex - she's open to that.
Karen Fraser: “If you can make a better decision, you should is always my principal.”
But others - including the State Treasurer - say to change the project now would open the state to litigation.
The Department of Information Services says it's confident the project will pay for itself over time. Still the intra-party tensions among majority Democrats will be on display when the legislature reconvenes in January.
Carlyle and Dunshee hope to convince their colleagues to revisit the decision.