AUGUSTA, Maine — A proposal to eliminate the security checkpoint at the entrance to the State House appears poised to move forward 15 months after the checkpoint was built.
A subcommittee of the Legislative Council, which is made up of legislative leaders, decided Thursday to recommend that the full council allow a bill sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, to move forward. The bill calls for the removal of a security screening checkpoint inside the State House that includes metal detectors, a parcel-scanning device and several full-time officers.
Katz told the Legislative Council’s Facilities Subcommittee on Thursday that his rationale is twofold: Removing the checkpoint would save $200,000 a year, he said, and he questioned why the checkpoint exists at the State House when there are none like it in other government buildings in Augusta. That includes the Cross Office Building, which is attached to the State House by a tunnel and contains numerous legislative committee rooms.
Katz is the assistant Senate minority leader, a lawyer and former mayor of Augusta.
“We went the first 191 years in this state’s existence without forcing anyone to go through security,” said Katz. “If we are going to be spending public money for screening public places, I think we’re putting our resources in the wrong place. We have a waiting list for people with disabilities and we just cut monies for education.”
Katz cited public schools and courthouses — the latter of which employ security checkpoints about 50 percent of the time, he said — as examples of buildings where full-time security checkpoints make more sense than they do at the State House.
Other members of the Legislative Council offered lukewarm responses to Katz’s proposal.
“It protects the public,” said Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond. “That’s the challenge I’ve always had with going from what we have now to something less.”
Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said he agrees with Katz.
“Our most precious thing in our entire state is our children,” he said. “They go to school every day with no security and no checkpoints. You cannot protect against folks who just want to [cause] horror.”
Capitol Police Chief Russell Gauvin said he opposes removing the security standpoint. Asked whether having security officers stationed around the State House instead of at the security checkpoint would work, Gauvin said it wouldn’t.
“There was no shortage of police presence at the Boston Marathon,” said Gauvin, referring to the bombing at that event on Monday. “It made people available to put tourniquets on but it did not stop the attack. … I think this is a reasonable expense.”
Gauvin said eliminating the checkpoint would force him to cut five of his department’s 15 jobs. He said that since the checkpoint was built in January 2012, there have been more than 1,000 knives confiscated, most of which were given back to their owners when they left the building. Gauvin also said there have been several incidents of domestic violence or other outside threats to state workers or legislators that have caused heightened security measures at the State House.
“If someone wants to make a political statement, where do you think they would go in Maine?” asked Gauvin. “Right here.”
House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, opposed removal of the checkpoint but asked Gauvin to come back to the Legislative Council’s April 25 meeting with proposals to streamline entrance to the State House, perhaps by offering access cards for $100, which would cover the cost of a criminal background check and administration of the program. One of the council’s functions is deciding whether to allow the introduction of new bills after the deadline for doing so, which is the only way Katz’s bill could be considered this legislative session.