The roof leaks, but Alabama's legislators aren't leaving any time soon
By Tom Baxter
Southern Political Report
May 5, 2009 — Back in 1985, the Alabama legislature relocated from the state’s historic capitol building to what had been the State Highway Department Building next door while the older building was being renovated. The lawmakers haven’t like it much, but they haven’t left it either.
Eventually, the governor moved back into the Capitol, but the legislature had outgrown its old quarters, and so it has stayed, the House on two floors and the Senate on the two floors above it, in a 60s-era office building which has aged much less gracefully than its antebellum counterpart next door.
“It’s moldy, it’s musty, it has leaks in the roof and flooding in the basement. And the biggest problem is access to the public,” said House Minority Leader Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn), who sits on the state’s Legislative Building Authority.
Last week, the Alabama House passed a bill setting up the financial structure to build what would be the South’s first 21st Century state house. The new building would be built and leased to the state by an institution which has no counterpart in other Southern states, the Retirement Systems of Alabama. The RSA, which has invested in everything from airlines to golf courses, is responsible for much of the recent construction around the Capitol.
“That’s the scenario. I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon,” Hubbard said.
While the bill gives the authority the go-ahead to begin acquiring adjacent property, both Democrats and Republicans sent a clear message last week that things have changed since serious discussion about building the new statehouse began a couple of years ago. With the state under severe budget stress in this recession, the $167 million project is being moved onto a back burner just as it comes to a bubble. There’s a good chance the bill will pass the Senate, but only to lay the groundwork for the project to move forward much later. There’s been no talk, either, of using federal stimulus money to prime the pump.
“Every penny of money that comes to us is going to be used to prop the state budget up,” Hubbard said.
Eventually, something will have to be done. The leaky roof at the present statehouse has caused mold and mildew. With elevator malfunctions, plumping breakdowns and other problems, the state spends money on repairs virtually every month, and the cost of renovating the structure has been estimated to be more than building a new one.
Hubbard said the authority considered several plans – including locating the legislature at the other end of Dexter Avenue as part of a downtown Montgomery beautification effort – before arriving at the one voted on last week.
There are no architectural drawing yet, just a broad conceptual plan for where the building would be. But if the bill passes, Alabama will join the competition to see which state builds the first 21st Century statehouse.
Howard Partridge, whose website has a wealth of information about state capitol buildings, said two other states, Alaska and Arizona, have plans to construct new capitol buildings, but neither has gotten very far.
“I understand Alaska put their plans on permanent hold shortly after announcing the winner of their capitol building design competition. Arizona commissioned some preliminary studies, but I believe this has been more of an investigative exercise than a serious building proposal,” Partridge wrote in response to an email query.
Huey Long completed Louisiana’s highrise Capitol in the depths of the Great Depression, but his budget priorities were considerably different from any of the state currently considering erecting new edifices. So Alabama’s legislators expect to be putting up with the leaky roof a lot longer.