Controversial prison relocation bill questioned in Senate
SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Senate is expected to vote Friday on a controversial bill to create a board that would study moving the state prison and developing the land where it now sits as a high-tech business center.
Senators had many questions about the proposal Thursday during a floor debate, which will likely lead to substantial changes before it comes up for final consideration.
The composition of the proposed Prison Land Management Authority has been the most disputed part of SB72. Senators want to ensure the board is void of conflicts of interest and is subject to the state's open meetings and open records laws.
They also are nervous about financing a new prison, estimated to cost as much as $600 million.
Amid complaints from the public that lawmakers have the project on a fast track, bill sponsor Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, unexpectedly moved the bill to the top of the Senate calendar Thursday. Jenkins said he wants to give the House time to vet the measure and hold a committee hearing.
"I'm sure when it gets to the House, they'll beat it around some more," he said.
Also Thursday, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser addressed a City Weekly story that says he stands benefit financially if the prison is moved because he owns property in a housing development near the site. In addition, the bill currently calls for the Senate president to appoint two board members.
Niederhauser said he bought the property 10 years ago before he ran for Senate and before talk about moving the prison began. He said he expects the remaining 80 to 100 lots on about 30 acres to be sold by the middle of next year.
"I just don't see that having any impact. It's great to have the questions asked. It's great to have the transparency. But it hasn't even crossed my mind to benefit from the prison property," Niederhauser said.
As for the board appointments, he said he would make those decisions in consultation with the Senate majority and minority leaders.
The bill currently calls for an 11-member Prison Land Management Authority with two subcommittees — one with seven members to oversee relocating and building a new prison, and the other with nine members to manage development of the 690-acre prison property.
The governor would appoint eight members of the authority, which some senators say is too many. Jenkins said the governor's office contends legislative leaders have too much say on the makeup of the board.
"This has been the biggest football and the biggest issue on this project," he said.
Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said the proposal appears to be rushed. He said the state should study what could be done to improve the current prison and its programs, then decide whether to build a new one.
"In the smell test with the general public, I don't believe this is where it should be," Davis said.
Jenkins said there would be no specific deadline for the board to complete its work, though the bill calls for its first meeting to be no later than April 15.
"We feel like this board needs to take their time and do their duty," he said.
Jenkins said he expects it would take 18 months to two years for the board to make any recommendations to the Legislature.
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