SALT LAKE CITY — A bill marking the next step in relocating the Utah State Prison from Draper passed the House on Wednesday, but not before lawmakers eliminated the possibility that a new facility could be privately run.
But the changes to SB72, approved 51-20 by the House, were rejected by the Senate. A conference committee made up of both House and Senate members agreed Wednesday evening to take out the anti-privitization amendment.
A new version of the bill is expected to be up for a vote early Thursday.
It will still tweak the makeup of the Prison Relocation and Development Authority, add new prohibitions against conflicts of interest and give Gov. Gary Herbert the power to request proposals for relocating the prison.
"It requires PRADA to get to work," the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said. "It's that simple."
It was Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who successfully pushed through an amendment in the House to bar the state from considering proposals for a privately operated new prison.
"We're talking about human dignity, that we treat prisoners as people and not as commodities," Noel said. Private operators, he said, have an incentive to reduce prisoner care and rehabilitation "purely for profit. It's not that hard of a decision to make."
Noel said privately run prisons elsewhere have not proven to save taxpayers money while still providing good service. The Legislature has already passed HCR5, a resolution from Noel encouraging the use of regional jails as alternatives to some new prison space.
Wilson opposed the amendment, preferring to leave the option of hiring a private operator open. But the House passed the prohibition against considering any proposals that call for a privately run facility, 42-29.
A second amendment to the bill, proposed by Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, calling for public hearings both in Draper as well as in any proposed sites that surface in the process, easily passed.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, questioned why the House would take the option of a privately run prison off the table.
"I don't know why they would preclude anything because I think we want the best option, and I'm not saying privatization is the best option," Niederhauser said. "We ought to look at every option, what's best for the taxpayer, what's best for Utah."
Niederhauser said he's optimistic but not confident the differences can be resolved.
"I think we're all motivated to find a really good solution for that," he said.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said in the conference committee that he wanted the state to be able to look at privatizing the prison.
"I just don't want to jump to conclusions," Jenkins said. "They're all tools to look at. No more."
Wilson agreed in the conference committee that it was premature to rule out privatization even though he said it was "unlikely" the authority would end up making that recommendation or that the Legislature, which must approve any deal, would accept it.
The only member of the six-member conference committee to oppose taking out the ban on privatization was Rep. Lynn Hemingway, D-Salt Lake City, who said he was not sure the House would support removing it.
During the earlier debate in the House, Wilson said the state needs to start looking at proposals to relocate the prison.
"We can't wait any longer on this. Construction costs are low. Interest rates are low," Wilson said, while the state is "shackled by parts of the facility out there that look like Alcatraz."
Describing the prison's 700-acre location at Point of the Mountain as a unique opportunity because of its proximity to a major metropolitan area already home to technology companies, Wilson urged action.
"The high-tech sector is not going to wait around for us while we twiddle our thumbs," he said, suggesting developing the prison site could generate at least 30,000 new jobs and bring $20 billion into the state's economy.
The cost for relocating the prison is estimated at as much as $600 million, but backers of the plan say at least two-thirds of that cost would be recouped in savings from selling the Draper property and by constructing a more efficient, modern facility.
Contributing: Dennis Romboy