Department of Corrections boss Pete Haun is torn these days.

There's optimism in his voice as he ticks off the small steps made toward achieving his sweeping five-year overhaul of Utah's prison system.But he admits to some pessimism as he acknowledges just how far he hasn't come since taking over the troubled department almost a year ago. His insistence on being upbeat doesn't change the fact that it's easier to point to what hasn't happened than to what has.

Indeed, Haun - ever the optimist - is grateful for small things he believes are signs that things may be looking up. For example, he seemed truly gratified for the opportunity recently to appear before the Legislature's Law Enforcement Interim Committee and discuss the impact of the fiscal year 1998-99 budget on his plans.

"Our job is to make it work," he told lawmakers.

Outside the committee room, however, Haun couldn't say exactly how he will pull that off.

Indeed, lawmakers failed to adequately fund almost every area critical to Haun's plan to reduce the need for more prison construction.

Haun has a plan to save the state tens millions of dollars in prison construction by providing so-called "intermediate sanctions" for some offenders. He also proposes expanded use of county jails and private facilities.

The core of the plan, however, is a radically expanded regimen of job training, programming and drug treatment for willing inmates - all aimed at helping them get out of the system and not come back.

"Think of this as seed money," Haun told the committee.

Haun's conservative estimates indicate that every dollar spent on intermediate sanctions will return $10 down the road.

Lawmakers paid a lot of lip service to Haun's proposals but gave him little money. The department's final $203 million budget was $9 million short of what Gov. Mike Leavitt had asked for.

The parsimoniousness couldn't have come at a worse time, Haun said. Less than a month after the 45-day session ended in March, the state's prison population topped 5,000 for the first time, and the department skirted dangerously close to a mandated emergency release of prisoners.

On top of that, Haun said there are "disturbing" new projections showing that the prison population may be growing by 600 inmates a year - half again the rate projected over the past several years.

"That nearly knocked me out of my chair," Haun said.

If accurate, Haun said the state is on track for a prison housing crisis next spring the likes of which has never been seen before.

In February or March, he said, the Department of Corrections will have run out of beds in state facilities and will have spent all of the $11.3 million lawmakers provided for renting beds in county jails.

That brings up another bump in Haun's path. After he made his presentation, the committee prioritized interim study items. High on the list was jail contracting, a practice some key lawmakers don't like despite Haun's assurance that it may be the best deal in government.

The state pays $38 a day to counties to house nonviolent inmates. Several counties have built mega-jails, far exceeding their current needs, and are using the state's rent to pay off the bonds.

Critics wonder if it is in the state's best interest to help the counties do this, particularly since sheriffs are constantly raiding the Department of Corrections for trained officers.

Sen. Mike Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, who co-chairs the interim committee and, along with Rep. Blake Chard, R-Layton, ran the Corrections budget committee during the session, voted against increasing the department's jail contracting appropriation.

Haun is careful not to criticize any particular lawmaker, however. Instead, he says the department is winning the hearts and minds of others on Capitol Hill one at a time.