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$12 million found to keep Utah inmates behind bars

Published: Wednesday, March 9 2011 8:00 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY – Lawmakers found enough money Wednesday to avoid the early release of hundreds of state prison inmates — and earmarked savings anticipated on a major transportation project for Utah County roads.

The actions at what is expected to be the final Executive Appropriations Committee of the 2011 Legislature wrap up most of this session's budget issues aside from bonding for new buildings and adjustments to public education spending.

With the support of the GOP majority, the committee voted to appropriate $6.9 million to the state prison at Point of the Mountain to keep a pod open, avoiding the layoff of 75 corrections officers.

And nearly $5 million more was set aside to contract with local jails for additional space for prisoners.

Without the extra money, prison officials warned, some 384 would have been released and there'd be no room for the additional 120 prisoners expected in the coming budget year that begins July 1.

“We just avoided early release entirely,” said Tom Patterson, state corrections department director. “We’re relieved, to say the least.”

The almost $12 million was part of a list of additional funding items that includes $200,000 for the Ogden High School historic restoration and $50,000 for the Bear River Historic Museum as well as more money for the governor's office and rural clinics.

Also on the list is $500,000 each for the House and Senate bills that have fiscal notes and have not already been funded and reductions to other areas of the budget including the health and natural resources departments.

The list will be presented to lawmakers in bill form Thursday for approval before the 45-day session ends at midnight.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, made the only controversial motion in the brief late afternoon committee meeting by asking that any money left over from the $1 billion-plus I-15 CORE project through Utah County be set aside for other road projects in that county.

Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, was one of three votes against her request. He said decisions about funding road projects should be left up to the state Transportation Commission.

Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, also opposed the earmark. "I don't want to tie our hands," Romero said, noting the state has already spent significant money rebuilding I-15 through Utah County.

Lockhart said she was talking about projects already prioritized but not built because of budget constraints, starting with adding a lane to I-15 south of Spanish Fork to Payson for some $27 million.

"Let's be clear. We aren't even sure there are going to be savings," the speaker said.

The source of any leftover revenue is the approximately $100 million contingency fund for the project, which is only half completed. The Utah Department of Transportation has already tapped the fund for a controversial $13 million settlement to a losing bidder for the project.

House and Senate Republicans moved closer to settling on bonding for new buildings. The House GOP caucus approved bonding for $80 million in new projects, but Senate Republicans still have to work out a $5 million difference with that total.

On the House building list is the state hospital, a building in Davis County for Weber State University, a building in Tooele County for Utah State University and a new building on the USU campus.

Contributing: Paul Koepp

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com

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