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December 29, 2014

Extreme makeover, modest budget Remodeling under way in Alabama Senate

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Posted: Thursday, July 17, 2014 6:13 pm | Updated: 6:18 pm, Thu Jul 17, 2014.

Employees of the Alabama Legislature are busy remodeling the chamber where the Alabama Senate meets — and with a budget crisis looming, legislative officials are hoping to complete the job on the cheap.

"It's going to be a tough year next year, and I'm trying to save all I can," said Pat Harris, secretary of the Senate.

Workers this week have been ripping up the 35 desks where members of the Senate sit during the Legislature's annual session. Later they'll pull up the carpet, tear off the grey fabric that covers the walls and yank down the tiles in the ceiling. Harris, whose position puts him over daily operation of the upper chamber, says the state can replace it all for $200,000 or less.

"We haven't hired any outside workers yet," he said. "My staff is doing the deconstruct. We're cutting corners."

The remodel comes as the state faces a likely fiscal crisis next year. For three years, Alabama's $1.8 billion General Fund budget, which pays for all state agencies except for schools, has been shored up by $437 million borrowed from a state trust fund. That money runs out in 2015, leaving the state with a budget hole of as much as $200 million.

The cost to run the Legislature itself is only a tiny portion of that total budget, but spending in the Statehouse can be a touchy subject. In 2012, when the Legislature came close to running over its $19.6 million budget two months before the end of the fiscal year, legislative officials said they might invoke an "evergreen funds" provision in law that would allow them to demand $500,000 from other state agencies to cover their costs. Lawmakers quickly proposed a bill to ban evergreen funds for the Legislature.

Harris said the Legislature has actually cut its annual costs by more than $2 million per year over the past four years, while the Senate has trimmed its staff by 20. He said the Senate has been saving up for a renovation to the chamber, where senators have been meeting since the mid-1980s, when the Legislature moved out of the capitol building and into the State House. Harris said there hasn't been a renovation since that move.

Each senator sits at a desk adorned with a set of buttons that once were connected to a system for summoning Senate pages. The subdued lighting and decor have led more than one person to compare the chamber to a deck on the Death Star.

"It's George Jetson meets Star Wars," Harris said.

To make the renovation cheap, Harris said, the Senate will use inmate labor and workers from the two-year college system to rebuild desks and install them.

"It's going to look better, but we're not mahoganizing it or anything like that." he said.

Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he was a proponent of the renovation, which he said would be done at relatively low cost.

"I said, let's give this place a facelift if we can get it done without spending a lot of money," he said.

Marsh pointed out that the Legislature itself, and the office of the pro tem, had cut their budgets significantly since he became pro tem in 2010. He said the revamp was overdue, particularly given the need to outfit the chamber for modern computer technology.

“We continue to do all we can to save dollars,” he said. “But the Senate chamber has to be updated sometime. Technology has come a long way.”

Marsh’s Democratic opponent, Anniston lawyer Taylor Stewart, originally said he hadn’t been aware of the remodeling, but wouldn’t oppose routine maintenance to the chamber.

Later, Stewart called The Star to say he’d given the remodel some thought and didn’t see it as a wise move in a time of cuts to state services.

“We have other expenses to pay for,” he said. “Maybe it’s needed. But I think it could wait.”

Harris said decades without a change has taken its toll on the chamber. When workers pulled up desks this week, he said, they found dead rats underneath their supporting structure. Also inside the desks were large numbers of cigarette butts, apparently sequestered by senators over the years. Both houses banned smoking on the floor in the early 1990s, Harris said.

"There were even some Coke cans in there," he said. "I'm not sure how they got them in, but they were there."

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