JUNEAU — Legislative leaders have ordered the removal of a plum perch for lobbyists, visitors and staff on the Capitol's second floor, citing congestion and security risks.
For decades, the Capitol's second-floor benches, between the entrances to the House and Senate chambers, have provided front-row seating for legislative spectators, as well as a platform for influence-peddling. They're in a prime location next to high-traffic committee rooms, a legislators'-only cafeteria, the Capitol's main staircase and the expansive offices of House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.
But with lawmakers re-evaluating their security systems after a woman shot and killed herself outside the Capitol last week, the benches have been removed "until further notice," said Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla.
Huggins chairs the Senate Rules Committee, and made the decision in consultation with his House counterpart, Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage. They were concerned about the "congestion" created by the benches, and that dangerous objects could be hidden underneath them, Huggins said.
Visitors and lobbyists can still sit in a public lounge just down the hall, said Huggins.
"So people have a place," he said. "Just maybe not the one that they're historically accustomed to."
Some legislators were astonished to hear the news of the benches' long-term removal. (The change came after a weekend miniature golf tournament held in the Capitol, an annual event that typically results in some temporary interior redecorating.)
"Are you kidding me?" asked Anchorage Rep. Chris Tuck, the leader of the Democratic minority.
After the shooting last week, Tuck said he heard some legislators were worried about the potential for hiding a bomb under the benches — an idea he called "ridiculous."
"People like to get pretty dramatic," he said. "Moving the benches isn't going to do anything."
For lobbyists, the change presented a more practical problem by uprooting a de facto workspace.
"Ashley's office just disappeared!" said Eldon Mulder, a former legislator who now lobbies for an array of business and municipal interests. He was referring to Ashley Reed, another lobbyist famous for stationing himself on the second floor.
Reed, in an interview, made a prediction about the furniture's future that he said was grounded in his 33 years of lobbying experience.
"Over the 33 years, the benches have disappeared a couple of times," Reed said. "They always show up again."
For now, lobbyists can still sit down the hall. And, they'll also have a better spot to sit if they need to lobby House Democrats, whose support is needed to access a key state savings account expected to be used to balance the budget.
That's because the benches were moved to the fourth floor — the same floor as Tuck's office.