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Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) questioned how officials prioritize the maintenance and improvement projects of the Capitol in his first hearing Wednesday as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.

The hearing covered the fiscal 2009 requests of the Architect of the Capitol, the Capitol Police and the Library of Congress. But chief among Alexander’s concerns seemed to be the $1.4 billion maintenance backlog for Capitol buildings and how the Architect of the Capitol picks what gets done first.

In one of his first acts as ranking member, Alexander has asked the Government Accountability Office to complete a report on how the AOC prioritizes its projects — and on Wednesday, he grilled acting Architect Stephen Ayers on the process.

The AOC’s top 10 priorities are mostly dictated by citations from the Office of Compliance, Ayers said.

But Alexander questioned that system. “It looks to me like you’re just accepting everything they’re saying,” Alexander said. “Why don’t you just let them set all priorities?”

The OOC is charged with ensuring that Capitol buildings comply with safety and discrimination laws, making their recommendations hard to ignore. Also, Ayers said, the OOC’s priorities are projects that are important to the AOC.

Those priorities are still a small slice of the $1.4 billion in maintenance and Capitol improvement projects that need to be done.

To make a dent in that list, the AOC is asking for a bigger budget increase than any legislative branch agency: 55 percent. A big chunk of that — $127 million — is to repair dangerous utility tunnels underneath the Capitol complex. In 2006, the OOC formally cited the AOC for the asbestos and safety hazards found there; under a settlement agreement, the AOC has until 2012 to fix them.

It all needs to be funded fully, Ayers said, or Members risk building even more of a backlog.

“We believe that without this important investment, these facilities will continue to deteriorate,” Ayers said.

Wednesday’s hearing also brought up the expected increase in police overtime for fiscal 2009. Capitol Police are asking for $30 million for 574,000 hours of overtime — a third more than this year.

Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse said the reasons range from preparations for the presidential inauguration to the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center.

Furthermore, he said, the department is simply responsible for more and has outgrown its headquarters. In total, the Capitol Police department is asking for an 18 percent increase in budget over fiscal 2008.

“The mission has continued to expand,” Morse said, “and with that comes people.”

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