It's where lawmakers put our money that says much about their priorities and principles.
Utah lawmakers voted down a bill that would provide preschool for poor kids at a cost to the state of $1 million, with $10 million coming from private investors. While on the other hand, they intend to spend an estimated $600 million to relocate the state prison for private development at its present location, without asking two very important questions: what's the cost, and who pays?
It speaks volumes about legislative priorities and fiscal responsibilities when it appears lawmakers would rather put our tax money at the back end by building prisons than at the front end helping kids get an education. Legislators are willing to spend time trying to figure out how to relocate the state prison for private development, without thinking about how much it would cost taxpayers. As the sponsor of the bill said, the fiscal note hasn't caught up with the bill yet.
The initial draft of the bill to relocate the prison did not consider the public's interest; rather that it was for "private development." As one lawmaker asked, "Where's the need?" With the preschool bill, they quickly found problems and voted down the bill; however, with the prison relocation, they are trying to figure out how to get it done, without adequate study.
A senior senator asked the most important question, "How is it to be funded?" The "Prison Relocation and Development Authority" (PRADA) authorized to study the feasibility of moving the prison asked the prospective bidders on the project to provide plans, and how much it would cost to complete the prison relocation. In essence, they were allowed to write their own ticket. It prompted the same senator to ask for an independent appraisal, to assure the integrity of the project.
For lawmakers to not conduct a serious and independent study on the cost to taxpayers seems to bypass established procedures. The sponsor of the bill showed figures of how the prison move would be a good economic development project with great benefits; however, they were the figures of the prospective contractors. From the start, the intent was to relocate the prison for private development, rather than what was in the public interest.
Forgotten were the public's interest, the human cost and the purpose of corrections — the protection of society and the rehabilitation of prisoners. Since 99 percent of offenders return to our communities, rehabilitation is important. Also forgotten is the displacement of trained correctional officers, volunteers and problems of transportaton. The PRADA didn't seriously consider other options, such as expanded contracting with counties that would be an economic boost for them.
Policymaking often is not a matter of what is right or wrong. Lawmakers are elected to promote the interest of the general public, rather than special groups. Being an elected official requires making tough decisions based on a set of principles that reflect the values of our society. Lawmakers are constantly living with pressures from many sides; however, their first duty is to make decisions with honesty, integrity and for the public good.
The governor has set the standard for moving the prison, "Any proposal must be open, clearly feasible, aligned with established process and beneficial to Utah's taxpayers ... 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."
Just follow the money.
A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.