Legislatures Meet Amid Tighter Security
By Kathleen Murphy, Staff Writer
State capitols still belong to the people but increasingly resemble the visiting room at the state prison, thanks to post-9/11 security measures. As 39 legislatures begin sessions this month, capitol visitors in most states will face new barricades and requests for I.D.
Metal detectors have been or soon will be installed at statehouses in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky.
Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, most state capitols were completely open with unguarded entrances, and just two states, Alabama and Georgia, routinely used magnetometers.
The price of preparedness in some states means ordinary citizens will face more hurdles in contacting their elected representatives while lobbyists get special access. In Maryland, Illinois, Virginia, and Oregon, I.D. systems for lobbyists allow them to bypass lines for the general public.
The precautions have some wondering whether lobbyists or the news media should receive special access beyond what is granted to taxpayers. Will the security changes impair citizens' ability to participate in or observe the legislative process, increase public cynicism, and heighten concerns about the excessive influence of special interests?
"John Q. Public should be able to walk in off the street and talk to a legislator just as easy or easier than John Q. Lobbyist," said Marty Ryan, legislative director for the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, who has concerns about upcoming changes in capitol security.
Only three entrances to the Iowa state capitol will be open, and state workers will get a photo I.D. "At least we're not putting up barricades and concrete barriers," Ryan said.
Barricades are going up around the capitols in Idaho, Illinois, and Tennessee. Some type of fence or barrier will protect capitols in nearly half the states, according to Kae Warnock, research analyst for the National Council of State Legislators. Warnock is conducting a 50-state survey of capitol security officials, but she said a detailed report this spring will only be shared with police agencies and certain legislative staff for security reasons.
This month, a jailhouse informer told Florida authorities that terrorists were plotting to drive a truckload of explosives to Tallahassee to blow up Gov. Jeb Bush. The purported threat is being investigated.
Historically, state capitols haven't been immune to attacks. Last year, a despondent truck driver rammed his vehicle into the California capitol's south portico, doing $16.5 million worth of damage.
In Louisiana, dynamite wrecked the Senate chamber in 1970. U.S. Sen. Huey Long was assassinated in a capitol corridor in 1935 and the bullet-scarred marble is still visible. But iy was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 that led to the installation of metal detectors at entrances of the Baton Rouge capitol building.
"I had hoped we'd never come to that in our society," Senate President John Hainkel, R-New Orleans, told Stateline.org. "The terrorism acts changed my mind. Thousands of innocent civilians were killed." "We're in a high-profile building here, and I don't want to be the one to have made the call (not to tighten security) if someone would suffer some violent act," Hainkel said.
Heightened security has not been universally welcomed in Idaho, where some streets have been closed indefinitely near the capitol, and concrete barriers surround the building. Critics called the measures imposed by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne an overreaction.
"While some may not consider this decision good for me politically, it was not a political decision at all," Kempthorne said in his State of the State address Jan. 7. "When I was deciding on what course of action I should take, I didn't take a poll. I did say a prayer. I will not play political games with the lives of the citizens I serve."
In Virginia, visitors to the capitol must sign in and out, and have their bags searched. The Joint Rules Committee voted in November to require reporters and lobbyists to wear I.D. cards.
Del. Leo C. Wardrup Jr., R-Virginia Beach, a former Navy captain who opposed some of the security measures, said, "I know a little bit about threat analysis, and I know a busload of third graders is not a threat. I think we have to guard against overreaction."
In Kentucky, new metal detectors will screen visitors even though it is lawful to for a person with a concealed-weapons permit to carry a gun into the capitol.
Not every state capitol has turned into a fortress since Sept. 11. In Alaska, capitol security hasn't been ratcheted up yet, and Gov. Tony Knowles is still seen strolling to work with his dogs, not armed guards.