Prison Relocation Could Cause Collateral Political Damage

The surprise announcement in Tuesday’s open House GOP caucus that Republican leaders don’t want the Legislature as a whole to decide where the new half-a-billion-dollar prison will be built, upon reflection, shows not only a bit of political dodge ball, but political reality, as well.

While he may not be able to do it, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley, has previously told UtahPolicy that the new prison would go to Tooele County over his dead body.

And part of Thatcher’s district is Tooele City and the eastern part of Tooele County.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Whip Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, has the western part of Tooele County – which in this case includes Grantsville and the prime site for the new prison next to the Miller Motorsports Park.

You can view the boundaries of Knudson’s Senate District 17 and Thatcher’s Senate District 12 here.

The two senators could become targets of unhappy Tooele County voters should the prison ultimately go near Grantsville.

Thatcher is the Senate chair of the Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, and believes that any new prison funding must come through his committee.

That may be the case.

But if the House and Senate as a whole DON’T get to vote on the new prison’s site, that will take political pressure off of Thatcher and Knudson.

In the House GOP caucus, House Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said that GOP leaders in both the House and Senate think it would be a good idea if the Legislature (meaning Republicans in the Legislature) assigned the final prison siting decision to the seven-member Prison Relocation Commission. Wilson will soon introduce a bill giving the PRC that final siting power.

Wilson is the House co-chair of the PRC. Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, is the Senate co-chair. And the other five members are sitting members of the House and Senate.

No senator or representative whose districts include Tooele County sit on the PRC. Here is the PRC make-up.

So no one on the PRC would face a revolt from his or her constituents if the prison went to Tooele County.

But Thatcher and Knudson could, as well as the House members from that area, Reps. Douglas Sagers, R-Tooele, and Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville.

Sagers and Nelson are not in House leadership and don’t control prison budget approval, although Nelson sits on the 14-member criminal justice budget subcommittee that Thatcher co-chairs.

But if the prison goes to Tooele County, and the whole Legislature got a vote on that, then Thatcher and Knudson could well be questioned by their unhappy Tooele County constituents as to why they couldn’t use their powerful positions in the Senate to stop the Tooele prison site.

While there certainly could be good political reasons other than Thatcher and Knudson for legislators to step away from voting themselves on the new prison location, turning the siting decision over the to the seven-member PRC – whose members face no political repercussions from a Tooele constituency – would certainly help out Thatcher and Knudson, as well.

The pair could talk against the Tooele location all they want – while in reality not being able to stop it because the siting decision is outside of their political roadbed.