Tom Smart, Deseret News
Utah State Prison Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011, in Bluffdale, Utah.

The idea of prison relocation is like Christmas fruitcake: No one really wants it, but it keeps making the rounds. And each time, relocation turns out to be unfeasible and too costly to the taxpayers.

That didn't deter Rep. Greg Hughes from passing HB445 to "relocate the state prison to another suitable location in the state in order to allow private development of the land on which the state prison is presently located … " Up front, it was clear it was to help private developers; no public need was mentioned. How can lawmakers justify passing laws for private parties at taxpayers' expense that show no benefit to the public?

Taxpayers may be getting stuck with a $461 million bill to relocate the Utah State Prison so a private developer can develop the land where the Draper prison is located. That's the cost according to one study, "Evaluation of the Feasibility of Relocating the Utah State Prison," prepared in October 2005 for the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management (DFCM).

Last February, when the idea surfaced, the governor's spokesperson said, "Any proposal must be open, clearly feasible, aligned with established process and beneficial to Utah's taxpayers. The governor said that if this is the time to relocate the prison, we are going to do it right, and no matter what proposals come forth, the ultimate litmus test is whether it is in taxpayers' best interest." In May, he said it might happen if "it does optimize the taxpayers' dollars, and (is) a better way to manage our inmates … " That ought to be the litmus test for any proposal that surfaces.

Under HB2002, a Prison Relocation and Development Authority (PRDA) committee was appointed to evaluate any proposal regarding a "relocation project" and submit its findings to the governor and the Legislative Management Committee. Its first meeting was held last week, and Greg Buxton, Director of Facilities Construction and Management, was elected to chair the committee. The involvement of DFCM is important to assure established protocol for such state projects will be followed. Earlier, former state Sen. Al Mansell and other individuals were trying to get legislation that would bypass the state entirely from selling the prison property as established by the state's competitive bidding process. The committee will meet weekly and open to the public.

The committee reviewed the statutory charge and earlier studies. One member made a timely suggestion that the committee establishes principles that will guide them in carrying out their charge.

It seems the governor set the marker to be followed: if it optimizes taxpayer dollars and is a better way to manage our prisoners. This includes transportation costs of prisoners to and from jails, courts, parole hearings, hospitals and emergencies (helicopters, ambulances, etc.) which increases escape possibilities and life threats to employees and the public; the displacement of 700 plus experienced prison employees, many of whom have established homes in Utah County; loss of volunteers; training of new workers; and increased costs.

Management of prisoners and their return to our communities is vital and that includes maintaining contact with their families; relocation, requiring lengthy travel for families, may make those visits prohibitive.

The committee ought to use the governor's litmus test, including an analysis of the role of government in promoting private projects when there is no clearly defined public benefit. Lawmakers have the fiduciary duty to act responsibly and in the public's interest. The idea of wasting tax dollars on another study to benefit private developers may be nuttier than the proverbial fruitcake.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Senator Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education.