AUGUSTA — A little over a year after security screening began at the State House, Sen. Roger Katz is proposing to take it down.

The Augusta Republican, who serves as assistant minority leader in the Senate, argues that the state cannot afford to spend $200,000 a year for the operation, especially in times of budget crisis.

“If someone is crazy enough to get at a legislator or state employee, there are lots of other opportunities to do that,” he said. “Given the budget situation we’re in, don’t we have higher priorities than this?”

Katz said he realizes with the Boston Marathon bombings that this is a difficult time to talk about reducing security. But he worries that the screening system gives people a false sense of security and that violent confrontations are much more likely to occur at county courthouses. Only about half of the courthouses have security.

He said there are other budget needs as well.

“When we have waiting lists for adults with disabilities and we have cut some funds for education, why is this a priority for us?” he asked.

More than a month ago, Katz requested special permission from legislative leaders to introduce a bill proposing the elimination of the screening. Instead, the 10-member Legislative Council will discuss the proposal on Thursday now that Katz has presented his idea to a smaller group of lawmakers.

One of those legislators, House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said the facilities committee has discussed the security system for a couple of months.

“Clearly, our priority has to be the safety of the public and employees of the building,” he said. “We’ve heard from the chief of capitol police that the State Houses generally are a very tempting target for symbolic reasons.”

Berry said they are discussing whether the system can be more efficient and whether it makes sense to allow those who pass through security several times a day to purchase a pass if they pay for a background check.

“It’s been just over a year since the security system was put in place,” he said. “It’s a good time to reflect back and figure out if it’s working well.”

Capitol Police Chief Russell Gauvin said state capitols are a target for those seeking attention and news coverage.

“If they want a reaction, that’s where they are going to get it,” he said. “They know they are going to be front page news and get their 15 minutes.”

The addition of a screening checkpoint at the State House was controversial from the start, with Republicans on the Legislative Council voting to install the new system while they held a majority on the council. The council approved the expenditure of $546,000 over two years and the system went live in January 2012.

Since the system has been in place, the four screeners have recovered dozens of potentially dangerous items, mostly knives, Gauvin said. They have not confiscated any guns, mostly because people with guns turn away when they see the screeners, he said.

The decision to install the system followed the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona and the arrest of then-Rep. Frederick Wintle, R-Garland, who pointed a gun at a man in a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot in Waterville. Some Democrats opposed the decision, arguing that it was expensive and unnecessary.

One point of contention all along has been that while anyone who visits the State House must go through security, the adjacent Cross State Office Building has no screening system. The two buildings are connected by an underground tunnel and those who walk from the Cross Building to the State House must go through the checkpoint.

Legislative committees hold hearing in both buildings, although formal House and Senate sessions are held only in the State House. The governor’s office is in the State House as well.

Gauvin said he’ll respect whatever decision the council makes with regard to the security system, although he believes it has been effective. The cost has run about $200,000 a year, which is less than expected.

“I do think the expense is well worth it,” he said. “It’s a pretty lean and efficient operation and it’s been pretty effective.”

Susan Cover — 621-5643
[email protected]

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