In what must be considered a unique political move by the Utah Legislature, lawmakers are on the verge of giving a seven-member prison relocation commission the power of deciding where a new $500-million-to-$600-million prison will be located – sidestepping the location issue themselves.
In an open House GOP caucus Tuesday, Republican representatives were just about to vote in favor of a yet-unseen bill that would give such authority to the commission, when House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan said maybe such a caucus stand should wait until next week.
But the implications were clear: The 75-member House and the 29-member Senate would NOT make the final prison relocation decision – as it was always imagined they would.
Instead, under a bill soon to be introduced by House Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, who is the House co-chair of the Prison Relocation Commission, the seven-member group would make the final location decision – and it would not come to the Legislature for formal public hearings, debates and votes.
It is clear political dodge. And Wilson didn’t deny it.
In fact, he basically called that shot, telling his 63-member GOP House caucus “leadership believes we need to take politics out of this decision” by in effect bypassing a final location debate and vote in the Utah House and Senate.
Later in the caucus, Wilson said he believed it would be a “big mistake” for the Legislature to bring politics into the prison siting debate by having a siting bill brought to the body either later this year or in a 2015 special session.
As he said that several lawmakers spoke out, interrupting him, saying lawmakers really can’t take politics out of the decision-making process.
“No way,” one GOP House member was heard to exclaim.
The PRC has, after much discussion with its paid private consultant, “preliminarily” picked three locations – previously publicized.
They are in northwestern Utah County, western Salt Lake County, and in Tooele County near Grantsville and the Miller Motorsports Park.
Wilson at first told his caucus that this Friday’s PRC meeting would finally pick the three sites. But as opposition seemed to move in the caucus meeting, he said maybe the PRC would pick “three or four” final sites for consideration.
In a press availability after the caucus, Wilson said the PRC might pick “three, four or five” final sites.
But, in reality, the three sites are basically mapped out already, with Wilson saying only minor “morphs” in the 500-acre footprint may change before the PRC makes a final recommendations.
By May or June the PRC will decide on one site, he said.
And under Wilson’s yet-unseen bill that would be the final site decision – with no appeal by, or approval of, or even debate by, a future Legislature.
Now, GOP leaders – even some Democratic legislators – say that the prison relocation process has been more open and transparent than any other major state building siting process.
And the PRC, with its seven legislators as members, would still be taking public debate and consulting with residents and local public officials near the final site.
So there would be more public input by those likely impacted.
But the Legislature itself would not be holding public hearings or votes on where the new prison would be sited. Lawmakers would approve budgets for the prison, and bonding for the cost of the new buildings – which likely will be constructed over the next three years, said Wilson.
Indeed, when the state wants to build a new building or structure, the Division of Facilities Construction Management holds some hearings and then decides where it is best to be located.
The Legislature approves the funding, but not the locations.
“We are at a four-year process that has never been so transparent,” said House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper. Hughes used to sit on the PRC, but resigned after being elected speaker last year. The current Draper prison sits in his House district.
Wilson again walked the House caucus through the reasons why it is really smart and important to move the Draper prison, the main portions of which were built in the early 1950s.
There is opposition by local leaders and residents in all three of the preliminary sites, with the general feeling that the Tooele County location may be the final site – fewer people around the land, fewer votes by legislators from that area.
While Hughes is correct that lawmakers and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert have been talking about moving the Draper prison for some time, a UtahPolicy poll taken in December shows that most Utahns actually don’t want to move the prison, but reconstruct it if necessary at its current 700-acre Draper site.
Pollster Dan Jones & Associates found that 54 percent of Utahns said don’t move the prison, only 36 percent said move it, and 9 percent didn’t know.
So, perhaps to their surprise, lawmakers found out that they and Herbert had not done an appropriate public relations job in convincing folks that the old prison needed to be moved.
The same poll showed that among those who said the prison should be moved, 40 percent wanted it to go to Tooele County. Other possible locations were mentioned in the poll question, but none of those got above 20 percent support.