JACKSON – Mississippi’s state Capitol is quiet and empty now that the 2014 Legislature has gone home.
But the grand spaces of the rotunda and House and Senate chambers can’t hide it – the people’s house has grown too small.
Spectators routinely stand through committee meetings when the Legislature is meeting, and the lack of an office for every lawmaker leads to a constant tension over space. Leaders are trying to manage the room they have, but there’s little discussion of long-term solutions. At the very least, lawmakers could have to disrupt longstanding traditions to better use limited space. And building more square footage would cost money.
Veterans of the Capitol say committee meetings were not always as crowded as they are now. But as lobbyists have proliferated, rooms have filled.
“We do have more lobbyists at the Capitol,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Greg Snowden, R-Meridian. “We also have more citizen participation at the Capitol, and that’s a good thing.”
In the House Appropriations and Ways and Means committees, some spectators are typically standing, or at least sitting, on the heating and air conditioning units. That’s also true in the House and Senate Education committees and in the House Insurance Committee. In 2013, during the fight over charter schools, officials forced some people to stand in the hall because the House Education Committee room was too full. Snowden, as chairman of the House Management Committee, is in charge of allotting space for House functions. It’s a tough job, because there aren’t enough offices for each lawmaker, meaning some House members don’t have a private space to meet with a constituent. Some senators, too, lack an office.
“People assume we all have these big staffs and all have offices,” Snowden said, when even some lawmakers with offices have tiny cubicles and most share staff members.
One option is to build new space. But preserving the historic nature of the Capitol is a challenge. One proposal in the 1990s was to build a legislative office building across High Street. Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, opposed that move, saying it would “mummify” the Capitol by removing legislative functions.
Bryan favored underground additions. Texas, for example, solved a space crunch with a four-story underground annex. Mississippi could look underground, but it would be expensive. And it might not look good for conservative Republicans to be seen lavishing money on space for themselves.
There are alternatives to building more space, at least when it comes to meeting rooms.
The Capitol has two large committee rooms. But committees traditionally meet in rooms as close to the office of their chairman and committee clerk as possible. Many committees have been meeting in certain rooms for so long that there’s committee-themed artwork on the walls. Snowden said he doubts an additional committee could be scheduled into the large ground-floor space controlled by the House because during crunch times, committees have long and frequent meetings. But it might be possible at least at times.
There are also meeting rooms across West Street in the state’s Woolfolk Building. Leaving the Capitol would probably be unpopular. Years ago, some lawmakers were offered offices in Woolfolk, but no one wanted them.
Another option would be to add video feeds for committees. Some other states have done this, but Mississippi only provides video feeds of the full House and Senate. Fewer people might come to committees if they could watch on the Internet. Until something changes, though, citizens should come early to sit during a committee meeting. And they may need to look for lawmakers in the hall.