State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer said yesterday that he will support the $26 million expansion of the House of Delegates' office building, clearing one major hurdle in a project beset by construction delays and potential political and budgetary problems.
He wants to make sure, however, that the annex to the Lowe House Office Building doesn't turn into a "Taj Mahal," a not-so-veiled reference to the extravagant Senate office building that opened in 2001.
With Schaefer's support - and that of state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp - the project has the necessary majority on the state's Board of Public Works to get the final go-ahead.
However, construction will still be held up for nearly a year because delays on a related project have forced the state to push back the House annex, which was originally supposed to be under construction last month, officials said.
Critics had called for a delay in beginning construction on the project because of the state's financial situation, making it difficult to rationalize approving construction at a time when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is ordering budget cuts.
Others had wondered if Ehrlich, who blames House Speaker Michael E. Busch for the defeat of his slot machine proposal, would cancel the project in retaliation.
Ehrlich, a former delegate who holds the third vote on the Board of Public Works, said that while he supports the concept of an expanded building, he thinks the climate may not be right .
"Do you need a building? Yes. Is it the greatest timing in the world? No," he said yesterday. But, he added, "No one in the administration stepped in the way" of moving the project forward.
Schaefer said as long as the building stays within its budget - and doesn't become a palace of imported marble and stained glass - it might as well go up. Delegates have waited a long time for the expansion, which will include technology upgrades, committee rooms and other public spaces but not new offices.
"There never would be a right time to build it," he said. "It's not an extravagant building. It's a building for use, not beauty. You can do it within reason."
Officials with the Department of General Services briefed Board of Public Works members Tuesday about the building's status. Kopp, also a former delegate, said the officials explained that it would be best to rebid the building for a later construction date and the move would not cost the state additional money.
The construction delay is a result of hold-ups in the construction of the new Bloomsbury Square public housing complex. The old Bloomsbury stands where the House annex will be erected, and construction there couldn't begin until Bloomsbury was demolished.
The new Bloomsbury, which is being built on a waterfront plot less than a mile away, is slated to open at the end of this month, said DGS spokeswoman Anne Hubbard. It had been expected to be completed in March but weather delayed work.
Anne Arundel County Republican Del. Herbert H. McMillan has been pushing to curtail state spending and said the House annex is no different. "I think they should disallow the project at this point," he said. "We need schools before we need plush office buildings for legislators.
Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.