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"Leaders Want More Space"

News Article

Location: Montgomery, AL

Rep. Richard Laird is tired of wading through dozens of lobbyists just to get from his office to the floor of the House.

The Roanoke Democrat gets aggravated every time he has to push his way through the hallways. It just shouldn't be that way, he said.

Outside the room where the House Public Safety Committee meets, Rep. David Grimes has seen times when citizens can't get into the room. It's too small, so they line the hallways trying their best to hear what's going on inside.

When people can't get into the meetings, they get mad, Grimes, R-Montgomery, said.

Tired of jostling past lobbyists and watching the public get shut out of committee meetings, Laird decided it was time to do something.

So he sponsored a bill that created the Legislative Building Committee and charges the panel with the task of analyzing how to best use the limited space in the State House. Everything is on the table -- including renovation and even construction of a new State House.

Gov. Bob Riley signed the bill Thursday.

"We have been talking about this for many years," said Laird. "Sometimes we have to wade through 300 lobbyists in the hallways."

The bill has its detractors -- especially those who oppose any plan to build a new State House. Grimes, R-Montgomery, won't support new construction.

"I don't think that's necessary at this point," said Grimes, who pointed out he thinks

the Senate is already too elaborate.

But he does agree that more meeting space is needed. The House Public Safety Committee is a good example of the problem.

"Every meeting they have, people are spilling out into the hall," Grimes said.

Rep. Thad McClammy, D-Montgomery, chairs that committee. The tight quarters don't allow much room for would-be spectators, he said.

"They think they deserve more and they do," said McClammy, referring to people who routinely find themselves standing in the hallways.

Sen. Wendell Mitchell has seen similar meeting space issues in the Senate, particularly when public hearings are scheduled.

"When you have a major issue, people line the walls," said the senator from Luverne.

McClammy said most citizens don't understand how cramped quarters are at the State House, so he thinks talk about renovation or a new building won't have much public support.

"They probably think we live in some luxury," he said. "The average legislator is conducting business in something about the size of a big broom closet."

Sen. Larry Dixon, R-Montgomery, sees the space problem differently. If legislators didn't hire unnecessary staff, space wouldn't be an issue, he said.

"The Legislature is expanding itself," Dixon said. "If we didn't hire them, we wouldn't need more space."

A plan to move the Alabama attorney general's office out of the State House would free up 90,000 square feet of space. The attorney general's office would be relocated to the old Public Safety Building in front of the Capitol by August 2008.

However, the Legislature hasn't appropriated money to cover the move, said Chris Bence, spokesman for the attorney general's office.

Those funds also would be needed to cover the 60 percent increase in rent the attorney general's office would pay the state finance department for space that's about 5,000 square feet less than the State House location.

Bence said until the financial issue is resolved, the office will stay put.

"We're pretty much stuck where we are," he said.

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