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Alabama lawmakers approve construction agreement for statehouse


Alabama lawmakers approve construction agreement for statehouse

Sep 27, 2023 | 7:59 am ET
By Jemma Stephenson
Alabama lawmakers approve construction agreement for statehouse
The Alabama Legislature has meet in the current Statehouse -- the old Highway Department Building -- since 1986. Amid deteriorating conditions in the current Statehouse, Alabama is pursuing what would be the nation's first new State Capitol in nearly 50 years. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

A panel of Alabama legislators Tuesday voted to proceed with a plan to construct a new statehouse.

The Legislature passed a bill last spring authorizing work on a new building for lawmakers to replace the current building, which faces mold and leaks.

Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, the chair of the Alabama Legislative Council, said after the meeting Tuesday said that the statehouse faces $100 million in deferred maintenance.

“You’ve got parts for the elevator, (and) how much longer are they going to make those things?” he asked.

The council did not share cost estimates at the Tuesday meeting. Givhan told reporters after the meeting that the taxpayers’ security is that the Legislature can leave the agreement until the end of the design phase.

“This is not a overly complex contract, but I think it’s appropriate for what we’re doing and what we do have here is a right to essentially pull the plug,” Givhan told the committee before they approved the agreement. 

If constructed, the statehouse would be the first built in the nation since Florida finished work on its Capitol Complex in 1977. 

Othni Lathram, head of the Legislative Services Agency and secretary for the committee, told legislators that a construction agreement with the Retirement Systems of Alabama that would allow them to pay RSA’s “out of pocket cost” plus an 8% administration fee. They will have the option to buy the building at the end of their lease or at any point during the 25-year lease. Lathram said that rather than signing a lease, they are signing the relevant parts as a “construction agreement.” After being signed, they can begin the design phase.

Lathram said that he has joined Alabama House Clerk John Treadwell and Alabama Secretary of the Senate Pat Harris in exploring preliminary design work, including  square footage needs, environmental surveys and site traffic analysis.

A picture describing problems at the Alabama Statehouse
In a proposal for new State House building, a document outlines the issues with the current building in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo by Stew Milne for the Alabama Reflector)

“I think we’re at the point now, where assuming we move forward today in the process, we could start with actual designs quite fairly quick,” he said.

At an RSA meeting earlier this month, CEO David Bronner said the statehouse price tag  could be close to recent federal buildings. The Tuscaloosa Federal Courthouse building cost $47.8 million in 2011. In 2015, an $89 million contract was awarded to Mobile from the federal government for a courthouse.

Givhan said after the meeting that he did not want to provide a quote.

“I don’t want to give a price because once I give a price, then, everybody’s like, ‘You know, okay, well, they missed it,’ and look, it’s, honestly, a lot of times when you do get get a quote, it seems like it’s always going end up being higher,” he said.

Givhan said that they have “some good ideas” on what the costs may be from doing the Finance Department right now, but they need to get through the design phase.

Bronner said that some of the questions came around ceremonial areas. Givhan did not know what the numbers came out to Tuesday, but he said after the meeting that they are looking to which areas can just be workspaces and which need to represent the state of Alabama.

“But there’s going be an area there that the public is going to be interfacing with, it will be part of the image that Alabama projects,” he said.

Alabama is currently facing skyrocketing construction costs for its prisons, with one prison now costing over $1 billion dollars. Givhan said he does not expect that to happen in the same way with the state house building.

“I’ve kind of jokingly said that maybe we should let RSA build prisons from now on because I think they do a better job than what we’ve had today,” he said. “But anyway, we all try to guess the market and we all try to guess what interest rates are gonna do and guess what the stock market’s gonna do, etcetera, etcetera, and we usually can’t predict that very well. And so at some point in time, we have to make a decision.” 

During the pandemic, lawmakers faced criticism for putting a new statehouse on a list of potential ways to spend federal funds, according to Al.com. 

Givhan told reporters that he has not faced criticism from his constituents for the new state house. He also said they, as lawmakers, do not spend that much time in the statehouse or Montgomery, but their staff is in the building every day.

“We’re not here all the time,” he said. “Our staff is, and this building has tremendous problems. It is not functional.”

With limited space in the building, Givhan said, lobbyists get to committee meetings early and take all of the seats, even though the building is meant to be the “People’s House.” 

“ I think people want something they can be proud of,” he said.