Lawmakers tried to regain Capitol dome access. Inslee said ‘no’

A budget provision would’ve allowed them to ascend the circular stairway to take in the nice views but the governor vetoed it. “We are the tenants and we can’t even go through our own building,” said a legislator who backed the failed proposal.

By: - May 17, 2023 5:05 pm

The rotunda, pictured above, is off-limits to lawmakers. So too is access to the peak of the dome. Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed budget language that would have restored access to those areas for lawmakers. (Jerry Cornfield/Washington State Standard)

Mark Schoesler has been to the top of the state Capitol dome. Most of the longtime senator’s legislative colleagues have not.

And they won’t likely get there any time soon.

Schoesler, a Republican, authored a provision in the state capital budget to make access possible but Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed it before signing the spending plan Tuesday.

“It’s petty,” said Schoesler, who learned of the action from a reporter. “We are the tenants and we can’t even go through our own building.”

Schoesler, of Ritzville, penned language allowing the director of the Department of Enterprise Services to shepherd any lawmaker and their guest up the steep spiral staircase to the peak of the nearly 100-year-old building.

He envisioned a more limited approach than when he arrived in the Legislature in 1992. Then there were public tours to the loop walkway at the base of the dome and to the cupola.

Restrictions on entering the dome went into effect in 1996 and were tightened further in 2007, with legislators boxed out.

Inslee cited safety as the prime reason for saying no to restoring lawmakers’ access.

“The Olympia Fire Department has assessed this space in the past, and, among other issues, reported that it could not use a firefighter’s rescue technique in this space or use a gurney to assist an injured person,” Inslee wrote in his veto message

“The Department of Labor and Industries classifies the area as a ‘confined space,’ which means that it has a restricted entry and exit and is not primarily designed for human occupancy,” he continued. “Access should be authorized only for individuals who need to do work on the dome.”

Inslee rebuffed them with an almost identically-worded veto in 2018 when lawmakers made a similar attempt.

“While the view is beautiful from the dome, there are too many risks involved with granting access to the public,” Inslee wrote then.

Getting up into the dome involves climbing three different types of metal stairs, with 266 steps in total, according to the Department of Enterprise Services’ policy restricting access. The majority of the path is up a steep, narrow, spiral staircase.

Secretary of State Ralph Munro (left) leads a group down the staircase from the cupola of the Capitol dome in 1997. (Courtesy of Washington State Archives)

No one requested this week’s veto. A spokesman for the governor said their office did confirm with the Department of Enterprise Services that safety concerns involved remain the same.

Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, the lead writer of the capital budget, said Wednesday he didn’t push back when told because he doesn’t think the access door is completely closed.

“If members have a legitimate reason to go up there, I still think we can work with DES to try to figure it out,” he said.

That doesn’t lessen Schoesler’s pique.

“I understand there are narrow places,” he said, recalling being advised one should be in good health and wear comfortable shoes before scaling the steep grade of the staircase. “Who runs the Capitol – the Legislature or the city of Olympia?”


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Jerry Cornfield
Jerry Cornfield

Jerry Cornfield joined the Standard after 20 years covering Olympia statehouse news for The Everett Herald. Earlier in his career, he worked for daily and weekly papers in Santa Barbara, California.