LITTLE ROCK — Lawmakers may consider moving the press room from the first floor of the Capitol to the basement and charging the press rent, a state legislator said Wednesday.
The subject came up during a joint meeting of the House and Senate committees on state agencies and governmental affairs, which is conducting an interim study on efficiency and cost-effectiveness in the use of space at the Capitol.
The interim study was requested by Rep. Larry Cowling, D-Foreman. Rep. Buddy Lovell, D-Marked Tree, said the study was prompted by an interest in moving the press out of its current room, located at the north end of the first-floor foyer.
“A better use of that space on the first floor is for a visitors’ center, possibly the gift shop and the tourist shop would be in that room, where the people don’t have to come through security … to go in there,” Lovell said.
Lovell also said the 400-square-foot room currently used by the press is not big enough to accommodate all the newspaper, radio and television reporters who cover the Capitol.
Marjorie Greenberg, business office director for Secretary of State Mark Martin, testified that the secretary of state’s office spends $52.50 per square foot per year to maintain the Capitol building. She said the state provides minimal maintenance, including weekly cleaning, in the press room.
Arkansas Code 22-3-207(a), passed by the Legislature in 1963, requires the state to provide that specific room to the press. The law does not impose any fee on the press for its use.
Lovell said it may be time to change the law.
“Everybody that occupies the Capitol other than the press room pays some fees for the space that they occupy to the secretary of state,” he said. “The cafeteria pays, the (vending) stand on the third floor pays, the shoeshine man pays, the barber in the basement pays.”
Lovell said a bill has already been drafted to move the press, though he and Cowling cannot run it because they are not returning to the Legislature next year. Under the draft bill, the room currently used as the press room would be designated as the permanent State Capitol Welcome Center.
The bill also would authorize the secretary of state to make space at the Capitol available to the media organizations “for lease,” at rates to be determined by the secretary of state.
Though it was not mentioned during the hearing, the draft bill also would allow the secretary of state to charge media organizations for reserved parking spaces, which are currently provided to certain media outlets at no charge.
The proposal defines “media organizations” as organizations that use print media, radio or television in the regular course of business to inform the public about the conduct of state government. No mention is made of the Internet.
Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, said Thursday that until a bill is filed he could not say what position the APA would take on the issue.
“Nobody likes change, and this certainly represents a radical change for the press corps at the Capitol. I’m certainly sympathetic to that, but I’d be willing to discuss whatever the bill turns out to be,” he said.