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Bill gives Legislature control of site of possible new State House

A bill approved in the Senate on Tuesday is another step toward a possible new Alabama State House.

Senate Bill 222 makes multiple changes to the Legislature and how it operates. It also gives the body control over the city block directly behind the existing State House.

Secretary of the Senate Pat Harris said the title on that property, which is currently a parking lot, says it’s owned by the state. The bill specifies it would be State House property.

“If we control it, that is where –  if we build a new building – we want to build it,” Harris told Alabama Daily News.

Last fall, the Alabama Legislative Council, the 20-member legislative body that owns the State House, approved a resolution directing senior legislative staff “to begin discussions with the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which has extensive experience and expertise in the provisions of building facilities for government agencies, regarding potential costs and options for new or relocated legislative facilities for review and consideration by the council.”

Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, is head of the Legislative Council and sponsor of SB222. It was approved unanimously by the Senate with little discussion Tuesday afternoon. 

Harris said if a new building is constructed, it would be planned and financed by the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which has constructed and owns multiple buildings in downtown Montgomery that house state agencies. The Legislature would then lease it from RSA or refinance and take over the bonds on it.

The Legislature would not have to put up any money up front, Harris said.

The Retirement Systems recently put out a request for proposals for architectural firms to provide “site investigation, analysis, planning, professional design, architectural and engineering services and other related services for new legislative offices and associated facilities.”

The current State House has a growing list of needed repairs. A 2021 engineer’s report detailed nearly $52 million in improvements over the next decade to keep the 60-year-old building functional, including to the HVAC and electrical systems. That pricetag didn’t include any renovations or improvements the public would see.

The building was not designed to be a legislative meeting space. It was originally built as the Alabama Department of Transportation’s headquarters and then retrofitted in the 1980s to house the Legislature temporarily as the State Capitol underwent renovations. The Legislature never returned to the Capitol and the State House has since become an embarrassment for legislative leaders.

It’s not uncommon to see the public turned away from committee meetings — some held in rooms that can only accommodate about 30 people — during the legislative session. Flooding and mold issues are also common.

Senate Bill 222 also changes the Legislature’s start date for the first year of a quadrennium from the first Tuesday in March to the first Tuesday in February. 

The bill also lets the Alabama Attorney General’s Office initially keep private the names of attorneys it contracts with for legal service and expert witness. Currently, the Legislative Contract Review Committee, a panel of House and Senate members, reviews agencies’ contracts for professional services. Givhan’s bill would allow the attorney general to redact contracts related to litigation “if necessary to protect from disclosure information that may lead to the harassment of the contractor.” 

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