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House Republicans not ready to endorse prison move

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 4:19 p.m. MDT

House Republicans weren't ready Thursday to back moving the state prison despite hearing much of the same analysis that convinced the Prison Relocation and Development Authority to recommend relocation a day earlier. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) House Republicans weren't ready Thursday to back moving the state prison despite hearing much of the same analysis that convinced the Prison Relocation and Development Authority to recommend relocation a day earlier. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — House Republicans weren't ready Thursday to back moving the state prison despite hearing much of the same analysis that convinced the Prison Relocation and Development Authority to recommend relocation a day earlier.

"I believe personally the window of opportunity is closing on this particular issue," House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Odgen, told the caucus after a presentation on the benefits of building a new prison and freeing up the Draper site for redevelopment.

Dee asked the majority caucus to support a resolution yet to be drafted by Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, that would support relocating the prison. The resolution, Dee said, would not state where or how a new prison would be built.

But several members of the caucus said they wanted more time to study a detailed report prepared for the authority by MGT of America, a Texas-based consulting firm, and asked that the vote be delayed.

"With all due respect, how do you say yes when you haven't read any of it?" Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, asked. "I don't know that you just go off and immediately have a 'full speed ahead.' It just seems a little premature."

The consultants said the net cost of moving the prison would be $102 million, once the value of the 700 acres at Point of the Mountain and the cost of maintaining the aging prison are taken into account.

The report, first provided to the authority late last month, was used as a basis for the recommendations adopted Wednesday. Those recommendations include asking the Legislature to approve a move and funding to get started.

The authority left it up to lawmakers to choose from among the consultant's options for relocating the prison as soon as 2018, a project estimated to cost $471 million and generate $2 billion in economic benefits annually.

Wilson tried to reassure the caucus that all he wanted was to know whether they wanted "to move forward with this opportunity or not. … The trump card you all have is you hold the purse strings."

That didn't work. After raising questions, including whether a decision could be made on a move before the new prison site had been identified, a motion about the resolution was withdrawn.

"This is a big decision. It seems very reasonable to take a little bit more time," said Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, suggesting the "marching orders" for Wilson should be providing more information.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who last fall declined to sign the authority's request for bids on a new prison, said Thursday he "would rather do it right than do it quick," calling the prison relocation "a big deal. It's expensive."

The GOP governor said the decision might need to wait until the 2015 Legislature.

Herbert said any move needs to be made in the context of reforming the corrections system, a point he made in his State of the State speech last week. The economic benefits of developing the Draper land is only a side issue, he said.

While some Republicans in the House complained privately about the lack of action by the caucus, their leaders said publicly that they expected the resolution backing the move to be approved this session.

"I don't think it's a question that we weren't willing to go that far," Dee told reporters. The caucus, the majority leader said, "felt more comfortable in reading the information."

Dee said waiting until the next legislative session a year from now to endorse a move wouldn't be "fair to the public or to the people who have been working on it."

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said the data collected by the authority "is compelling. What I'm ready to say right now is I agree. It needs to be moved." But, she said, there are many details to be determined.

Acquiring land for a new prison, the speaker said, is "way off."

And, she said, so might be action on an expansion of the state prison in Gunnison, recommended by the governor and the authority, as well as additional money to reimburse county jails for housing inmates.

What happens with those proposals, Lockhart said, "remains to be seen."

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