Alabama needs a new statehouse. Alabamians deserve to know its cost.
Alabamians have every right to be cynical about their state government.
After all, there’s a long history of Montgomery politicians enriching themselves or enriching business allies while distracting voters with attacks on those least able to respond.
It’s an old, ossified attitude. We live under a Jim Crow constitution passed in 1901. Georgia has had three different governing documents during that time.
And Alabama never really had a populist-type governor who at least talked about doing something for the people of the state. Not even someone like Louisiana former Gov. Huey Long, whose populism was little more than an act.
Your state government has rarely, if ever, been a state treasure. And that’s not even mentioning the two recorded spitball fights in the Legislature before the Civil War.
So I understand when people see officials building a new statehouse and assume the worst.
Especially when we have so many other needs — schools, infrastructure, health care — that deserve attention.
But let me try to make the case for a new home for your lawmakers.
Begin with this fact: the current statehouse was not designed to be a permanent home for lawmakers. And almost 40 years into this temporary arrangement, it’s deteriorating rapidly.
There are mold issues throughout the building. The statehouse, sitting in what amounts to a basin in downtown Montgomery, faces flooding threats that some of us have experienced firsthand. May 2009 was the only time I ever forded a raging river. This river happened to be on Montgomery’s South Ripley Street.
It’s added up to damage to the structure. By one estimate, the building has $100 million in deferred maintenance.
It’s not legislators, in Montgomery three months out of the year, who endure this. It’s the dozens, if not hundreds, of people who work in the statehouse every day who are exposed to these dangers.
Another issue, more metaphysical but no less important, is that the building isn’t accessible to the public. A statehouse at a minimum should be a place where voters can meet their leaders and gather en masse to make their voices heard.
Other statehouses have central lobbies or galleries where people gather for rallies or protests. Or visitors’ galleries where citizens can be seen.
There’s nothing like that in the Alabama Statehouse. The House and Senate are on two separate floors. Soundproof glass walls off public galleries.
Until recently, budget hearings took place in committee rooms that could never contain all the people who wanted to speak or watch the votes. Hallways leading to lawmakers’ offices can fill with lobbyists, officials and constituents, making it difficult to walk.
You walk into the building like a citizen; you exit like a rat leaving a maze.
The early designs for the new statehouse suggest it might be more accessible. (Not a high bar, but still.) The House and Senate would face each other, creating an area where, hopefully, the public could be heard.
A new statehouse would be healthier for everyone in it. And it might make it easier for the public to meet their representatives.
But there’s a problem: We don’t know what the building will cost, even as site work begins.
The best we have right now are estimates. Retirement Systems of Alabama CEO David Bronner, whose agency will oversee construction, suggested at a September meeting that the cost could be close to that of federal buildings. Two recent examples – one in Tuscaloosa, the other in Mobile – have ranged between $47 million and $89.5 million.
State officials last week were cagey about committing to a price tag, saying that would come once they finalize design work.
This isn’t acceptable. Alabama officials have a disturbing tendency to be opaque about matters of public interest.
Look no further than the new prison under construction in Elmore County. The governor’s office conducted a secretive bid process that brought in a company with no physical existence. A $1.3 billion allocation meant to pay for two prisons will only pay for one.
I would be shocked if a new statehouse cost $1 billion. (Toss in a whitewater park if it does.) But if it exceeds $100 million? That’s more than the deferred maintenance estimate for the existing building.
Can you justify that cost? Sure. A building in a state of collapse does not stop deteriorating. Maintenance costs on the existing statehouse will only grow, and all things being equal, a newer building should be cheaper, safer and more useful in the long run.
But backers of the new building need to give the state a price tag on the new building as soon as possible. Until then, there will be legitimate questions about what, exactly, the project is meant to be.
And the public will have every right to raise those questions. Alabama state government over two centuries — secretive, clannish and hard to access — has given them every reason to assume the worst.
A new statehouse that the public can really use could be a small step toward improving trust in state government.
But we can’t let old habits of secrecy take root in the foundation.