Legislature Approves Relocating Prison to Salt Lake City

With the expected debate and the expected outcome, the Utah Legislature formally adopted Wednesday evening a new prison site out by the Salt Lake City International Airport.

It passed the House 62-12, and the Senate, 21-7.

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert will sign the resolution, and state building officials will start the process of buying the 4,000 acres near I-80 and 7200 West, deciding where on the site the actual prison buildings will go, and spending more than $550 million for the facility.

Despite some House and Senate Democrats decrying the site in Salt Lake City, a few Democratic legislators did vote for it.

And a handful of Republicans voted against the site, recommended after four and a half years of study by a special legislative committee.

Now, it will take about 18 months to surcharge – or pile a bunch of dirt on top of — the prison building site, and do other things (maybe even sink 12-story deep footings or pilings) to make the site buildable.

And it may not be until 2020 that inmates can move from the old Draper prison into the new facility.

Then over time the 700-acre Draper site can be torn down, rehabbed, and begin to become what prison-movers say will be one of the great hi-tech corridors in the nation.

Ultimately, said Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, co-chairman of the Prison Relocation Commission, state and local governments will see upwards of $150 million a year in new tax revenue from the old prison site.

“And you can repay rebuilding a new prison pretty quickly” with that kind of new taxes, Wilson told his colleagues.

Still, there were opponents.

Rep. Sandra Hollings, D-Salt Lake, gave an impassioned argument against the new prison being in her district.

She said Salt Lake City West siders are good people, who every day take on community burdens, like halfway houses, rehabilitation centers, low-income housing and such.

Citing UtahPolicy polls by Dan Jones & Associates, she said her constituents and city dwellers adamantly oppose the Northwest Quadrant site.

“We understand giving back to our community,” she said. She objects to her area having all such correctional facilities “on our backs.”

“This is about social justice and class,” she said – meaning upper-class areas of the state want to put the new prison in an area considered lower class.

“If this is such great economic development, how come I don’t see your hands” – pointing to her colleagues – asking for it?

House Minority Leader Brad King, D-Salt Lake, said politics have been played in the Salt Lake City siting.

“It would be naive to believe” politics hasn’t been involved.

Only Salt Lake City Democrats represent the state House and Senate in the Legislature, and heavily GOP areas in northern Utah County – one of which was an early favorite for the prison – were ultimately excluded.

He said some of his colleagues’ arguments from areas not picked in the final selection, who now talk up the city site, “sound hollow” to him.

Yet, said King, considering all concerns, he would vote for it – mainly because of the long, open, and difficult process legislative leaders took to get public input and responses.

But Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said he was voting against the siting today because concerns about how the 700-acre Draper site will be redevelopment have not fully been explored.

In fact, said Osmond, development on the Draper land will bring even more property tax revenues to the Canyon School District, and further put the Jordan School District at a financial disadvantage.

(The bad feelings and economic difficulties in splitting the East side Jordan District into the Canyons District remain a political wound.)

Osmond and several lawmakers said the public has not come along with understanding the reasons to move the prison from Draper.

And polling shows the public doesn’t support moving the prison – at least not yet.

Finally, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, the Senate budget chairman, said in January’s 2016 Legislature he will attempt to repeal a half-cent sales tax increase permitted to the city that gets the prison.

Hillyard said both Salt Lake City mayoral finalists – Mayor Ralph Becker and Jackie Biskupski – have publicly pledged not to take the half-cent increase.

If the city mayor doesn’t want the half-cent increase, legislators should repeal it.

Hillyard said he knows state budgets, and that the state sales tax “is the life blood” of many non-education state programs – since personal and corporate income taxes fund public and higher education.

Salt Lake City sales tax revenue is so large, comparative to the whole state, that allowing that entity to increase its local sales tax by half a cent “reduces our head room.”

In other words, when – and Hillyard believes it will come, and maybe soon – the state needs to raise its sales tax for programs like Social Services, even corrections, it will not be politically possible.

Citizens will rebel because the sales tax they are paying in Salt Lake City will be too high.

So, Hillyard said, he hopes those who voted for the Salt Lake City new prison site will support in the 2016 session his bill to take away from city fathers the ability to raise the Salt Lake City local option sales tax by half a cent – given at the very end of the 2015 session as a possible way for the new prison’s host to raise funds associated with such a large operation as a 3,000-bed prison.

If that happens, come January those who say Salt Lake City got screwed by having the prison put in their Democratic areas will see the GOP-controlled Legislature taking away the half-cent sales tax prison incentive.