FRANKFORT — The Kentucky House and Senate chambers in the Capitol, where laws are made, will be spruced up structurally and technologically this year at a cost of about $800,000.
Plans call for refinishing the century-old roll-top desks of all 138 legislators and other wood furnishings in the chambers, installing new blue carpet, repairing plaster work, painting and updating electrical equipment.
The House also might get a new board to display the votes of lawmakers, and both chambers might install new sound systems and computers, but costs for those upgrades have not been determined.
The project is scheduled to begin shortly after lawmakers end this year's session March 24 and is expected to be finished in November.
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The chambers, which sit on the third floor of the marble-laden Capitol, have not been restored in more than 50 years, said David Buchta, state curator and director of the state historic properties division in the Finance and Administration Cabinet.
The division is responsible for maintenance of the Capitol and other historic properties owned by the cabinet.
Refinishing each desk will cost $3,000 to $4,000, said Buchta. That accounts for more than half of the $800,000 project total.
"The legislators' desks have never been restored," he said. "They are the original desks, in place since 1909."
Buchta noted that several desks bear the sorts of dents and scrapes that tend to accumulate on furnishings over the years.
An example of how the refinished desks will look sits among other desks in the House chamber.
Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute, a grass-roots organization that supports smaller government, said he thought the planned refurbishing was too expensive.
"Not too many business owners would want to spend that much on a desk," Waters said. "To me, that cost to taxpayers is unreasonable. You can get a nice cherry desk for $500. This is wasteful spending."
Waters said he was not against good desks for legislators, "but remember they only use these 90 days every two years."
The two top leaders of Kentucky's General Assembly defended the project.
"We feel that these structural and technological changes that will take place in the Senate and House chambers are necessary for us to conduct business in a more efficient manner," said Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester.
"The House chamber has served Kentucky well for more than a century now," said Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg.
The refurbishments "have been budgeted for, and in the planning, for some time now," Stumbo said.
The carpet has not been replaced in 33 years, Buchta noted.
He and Bernie Engleman, an architect who is overseeing the project for the facilities and support services division in the Finance Cabinet, said the cabinet would pay for work on the desks and other furnishings, the new carpet, some electrical work, and painting and plastering.
The Legislative Research Commission will pay for any new sound systems, legislators' computers and vote-tally boards.
The vote-tally boards, which display how the 100 House members vote on bills and resolutions, are about 30 years old and have been prone to problems.
"Right now, our good LRC staff keep the voter boards and sound system working with a lot of baling wire and prayer," said Stumbo.
The Senate, with 38 members, does its voting by a roll-call vote but has two screens displaying how members voted.
A 30-year-old sound system is "a statement in itself," Stivers said.
"I'm glad we have been able to get that much use out of it with the way technology has evolved over the years," he said. "But it's time for an update on some of these items, and I think it will make for a better experience for the thousands of visitors we get in these chambers on a yearly basis and for us as legislators as well."
Waters said lawmakers should have "good equipment to work with and a nice place to work in, but if there's nothing wrong with some of this, I don't see why taxpayers' dollars are being used."
Ground was broken on Kentucky's Capitol in 1904, and it was dedicated June 2, 1910.
Designed by famed architect Frank Mills Andrews, the Capitol cost $1.82 million to design, build and furnish, according to the Office of Historic Properties.