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Legislators consider whether to replace, remodel Statehouse

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — When legislators are asked why the current Alabama Statehouse needs to be remodeled or replaced, they often point to the saga of the gill net fishermen.

It happened early in the 2007 session when more than 100 fishermen from the Mobile area descended on the Statehouse to attend a committee meeting to consider a bill to ban commercial gill nets.

The fishermen crowded the narrow hallways of the Statehouse, where there was not a meeting room big enough for the large crowd.

Legislative officials eventually moved the meeting to a spacious auditorium in a nearby state office building to avoid having to turn back angry fishermen who had made the three-hour trip from the coast.

A legislative panel decided last week to take the first step toward finding more space in the current Statehouse for the Legislature or constructing a whole new building for lawmakers.

The Legislative Building Authority voted to spend up to $100,000 to hire architects to study the current Statehouse, a 1950s-era office building remodeled in 1986.

At the time, the remodeled building was to be home to the Legislature only until the historic chambers in the Capitol were redone. But lawmakers liked the new offices then — former Gov. Fob James dubbed it the “Taj Mahal” — and they settled in for the next two decades.

Building authority

The building authority was created by the Legislature earlier this year after two veteran Statehouse officials, House Clerk Greg Pappas and Secretary of the Senate McDowell Lee, suggested that the current building is inadequate and needs to be replaced.

The building authority chairman, Rep. Richard Laird, D-Roanoke, said the purpose of the study is to find out if it’s economically feasible to remodel the Statehouse, where hallways are often crammed with lobbyists, lawmakers, constituents and reporters. Some meeting rooms are so small that spectators often are forced to crowd around doorways in hopes of getting a glimpse of a committee meeting.

Moldy hallways

Stories of major water leaks are legendary in the building’s narrow, often moldy hallways.

“It’s pitiful when we have a public hearing and the rooms we have to use won’t hold but 15 or 20 members of the public and the fire marshal won’t let more people in,” Laird said.

Laird said the study will include how the Legislature can use the third and fourth floors of the building, which are currently occupied by the Alabama attorney general’s office. Chris Bence, a spokesman for Attorney General Troy King, said the AG’s offices will move by late summer or early fall 2008 into the old Alabama Public Safety building in front of the Capitol.

If the architects find the cost of remodeling the current building to be exorbitant, Laird said the committee then could be forced to consider making plans to build a new Statehouse, a move he said would cause critics to complain that lawmakers were building themselves palatial digs — reminiscent of James’ “Taj Mahal” remark.

“We know there’s got to be a lot of work done on this building,” said Laird, who has served in the House since 1978. “But if it’s feasible to remodel it, then that’s the right way to go.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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