Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Is tearing down the prison and relocating worth the cost?

Published: Sunday, Jan. 12 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

The Utah State Prison and surrounding area in Salt Lake County Friday, March 8, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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The new year is starting off with plenty of hot issues to keep our politicians busy. Here are a few items that deserve a full measure of our wit and wisdom (such as it is).

The initiative to tear down the state prison in Draper and build a new one elsewhere is advancing slowly, but starting to gain momentum. Is a new prison worth the cost?

Pignanelli: “There is no more independence in politics than there is in jail.” — Will Rogers

Standing in the Capitol Rotunda, one can swing a sock filled with coins and will likely hit a lobbyist who represents a client interested in the prison relocation (including yours truly). There is a quiet but intense focus by many business and community organizations towards this issue.

In 1951, the state correctional facility was built in the quiet farmlands of southeastern Salt Lake County with the hope that many prisoners would learn agricultural trades. Over half a century of population expansion later, the prison is now in bustling Draper and smack middle of Utah's I-15 high tech corridor. Local developers make a legitimate case that bio-med and technology operations on the Draper site would foster thousands of jobs while providing the $500 million needed for a new modern prison.

That’s a neat trick. But most Utahns are suspicious this is just a real estate play to benefit only a handful of people. Their concerns are justified because political and business leaders have yet to publicly articulate — in an aggressive manner — a vision for the property. Gov. Gary Herbert and the Legislature are appropriately deliberate and transparent in the process, but they need to push forward to take advantage of lower bonding and construction costs. The facts and numbers are compelling the conclusion that high-technology companies, entrepreneurial startups, prisoners in need of better rehabilitation programs and — most important — taxpayers will benefit.

Webb: Moving the prison in the next several years is inevitable. It makes no sense to have a state prison in the middle of a major technology and business corridor where great demand exists for commercial and housing development. In addition, the current prison is very old, badly in need of major updating. We need a new, state-of-the-art prison that will be more secure, better for inmates, save administrative costs, and serve Utah’s needs for the next several decades. Obviously, this needs to be done right with no political influence from lobbyists and political insiders. The process requires complete transparency and proper oversight.

Lots of people on the left and right are worried about National Security Agency spying. Should we be concerned, or is this just “black helicopter” nonsense?

Pignanelli: In this environment of intense partisan sniping, when liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans agree on something — that the NSA has gone too far — then you know a bogeyman does exist. The people at this agency are patriots who wish to protect fellow Americans, but they have lost their way. Citizens are entitled to a right to privacy that is not jeopardized by over-expansive warrants and needless storage of their records. The NSA must be contained.

Webb: I can lay awake at night worried about plenty of things (especially going bald and global warming!), but NSA spying is not one of them. Terrorist attacks are a much bigger threat than NSA compiling billions of records showing that one phone number called another phone number. The numbers become relevant only if national security personnel are tracking a terrorist and want to know who he called. The right-wing/left-wing outrage is all out of proportion. Where’s the damage? Who’s been hurt? Let’s worry about things that actually hurt people — cancer, auto crashes, homelessness, poverty, even lightning strikes and avalanches (and going bald and global warming!). Agonizing over NSA is a waste of perfectly good angst. If the feds want to hurt me they have far easier methods than NSA data. They have the Internal Rvenue Service, drones sporting Hellfire missiles, and Obamacare. Don’t be a sucker for the “sky is falling” cottage industry. By the way, Edward Snowden is a traitor, not a hero.

Air quality will be one of the major issues in the upcoming Legislature. Can Utah’s 104 lawmakers clean up Utah’s air?

Pignanelli: This question always leads to the traditional snark that if legislators would limit speechifying then the air would be dramatically clearer. Our representatives have limited but important options including moving more government fleets and operations to natural gas and increased telecommuting. The uncomfortable fact is that air quality is dependent on lifestyle choices Utahns make in business and personal activities.

Webb: Lawmakers will do a number of meaningful things, but one easy, simple and substantive step would be to give local governments a tool to expand and improve public transit if they and their voters wish to do so.

Some 57 percent of pollutants trapped in inversions are caused by automobiles. Many local governments wish to make public transit service more convenient and frequent to reduce auto pollution and congestion. But the Legislature needs to lift the cap on transit funding so county governments can place transit funding proposals on the ballot if they so desire. Giving local governments this tool isn’t a tax increase, or even authorizing a tax increase. But if local leaders wish to improve convenience and frequency of buses and trains, it would give them the ability to ask voters if they agree. A simple, painless step toward better air quality. What’s not to like?

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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