Construction has begun on an expansion of the Maryland House of Delegates Office Building -- a project that supporters say is "critical" to improving "public access to the committee process." But this really is a case of delegates putting their interests ahead of the interests of their constituents.

The unexpanded House Office Building complied with the Americans With Disabilities Act and with state fire codes. It recently had been rewired to support state-of-the-art computer and communication technology. The delegates meet only 90 days a year, and the building is used sparingly, if at all, the rest of the year.

Seating in the committee rooms for public hearings has been adequate. When hot topics draw heightened public interest, the joint hearing room, with a 167-person public capacity, can be used instead of the 65-person public capacity committee rooms. On rare occasions when the joint hearing room was in use and another committee concurrently was holding hearings on a popular topic, some people had to wait in the hall to testify, but this was the exception, not the rule. Closer committee coordination on scheduling hearings would have corrected that situation.

The expansion will almost double the size of the House Office Building, from 115,485 square feet to 210,839 square feet. That footage does not include a two-level, 96-space, 61,204-square-foot underground parking garage for staff.

The new suite of offices for the speaker of the House will feature a fireplace. The suite will cover most of the building's third floor and is larger than two new committee rooms combined. The speaker, meanwhile, will retain his offices in the State House. The expansion will bestow new offices on committee chairmen and vice chairmen too.

The expanded House Office Building will feature a skylight, marble lobby, wall sconces and chandeliers. Four galleries and two lobbies -- none of which has any public seating or audiovisual capability -- have been added along with six committee rooms, a public lounge and 21,000 square feet of office space.

Existing committee rooms that provide public seating for 65 people are 1,900 square feet. The new committee rooms that provide public seating for 65 people will be 2,280 feet. Maryland will spend more than $32 million without adding a single public seat to committee rooms. How exactly does that "improve public access to the committee process"?

The speaker of the House has said that the House expansion "isn't going to be the Taj Mahal." But to obtain land for the expansion, the state agreed to construct housing units for the Annapolis Housing Authority at Bloomsbury Square. That side deal cost taxpayers $8 million and became a famous boondoggle in its own right; after all, few public housing units have hardwood floors, skylights and waterfront views.

Maryland taxpayers also will spend $1.7 million for new furniture and $3.7 million for audiovisual equipment, bringing the bill for the expansion to $45.4 million -- nearly half of the proposed fiscal 2005 school construction budget. When I proposed an amendment to cut the House expansion and put the money into school construction, it was defeated.

Government exists to serve the people, but the House expansion turns this concept upside down, putting legislators' comfort ahead of making sure that Maryland's children go to school in decent classrooms. As a Naval Academy midshipman, I learned that military leaders take care of their people before they take care of themselves. Shouldn't this principle be our guide in government too?

-- Herb McMillan

is a Republican delegate representing

Anne Arundel County.

Herb_McMillan@house.state.md.us