Better UTAH Beat Episode 39 – March 5, 2013

The following is the transcript from this week’s Better UTAH Beat. It aired on March 5, 2013.
Cui bono? It is a latin phrase the great Roman orator and politician Cicero used when considering a piece of legislation. Translated, the phrase reads: Who benefits? And it is a question that should be asked over and over during Utah’s 2013 state legislative session. Who benefits?

One bill in particular has us shaking our heads and asking “Cui bono?” SB72, Prison Relocation and Development Amendments, sponsored by Senator Scott Jenkins, is a bill that would likely approve and expedite moving the state prison from its current location at the point of the mountain.

Few things can be so universally considered a bad idea, yet the haste with which some legislators are ramming this bill through the session suggests there are a lot of people who stand to benefit from this otherwise very bad idea.

The bill sets up a committee called the Prison Land Management Authority that would oversee both the relocation of the prison as well as the development of the land on which the prison currently sits. The committee, in its current state, consists of 11 members: one person from the Department of Corrections; one person from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development; two people with commercial construction experience; two with experience in the real estate industry; a member of the State Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice; an additional individual appointed by the governor; a member of the senate; a member of the house; and an individual from the host city.

The composition of the committee is fraught with problems. For example, no one on the committee represents the thousands of employees that currently work at the prison and would be forced to either change jobs, move, or commute long distances to maintain employment with the prison. The committee also includes a significant number of people from industry who could stand to benefit financially from changing the location of the prison. And, lastly, the formation of the committee makes no homage to bipartisanship. Both the state representative and state senator appointed to the committee will be appointed by Republican leaders–the Speaker of the House and the Senate President.

Jenkins insists that the greatest benefit will come to the state, not individual developers or landowners, through a widened tax base. For Jenkins, the land on top of which currently sits our state’s prison could be a cash cow for our state’s general fund by way of increased tax revenues.

But it was only a few years ago, while Huntsman was then-governor of the state, that a commission found that transferring the prison would be a terrible idea, costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

What’s different this time around? In committee hearings, Jenkins has said that the commission that he headed was tasked 20 percent about moving the prison and 80 percent about developing the property. By taking into consideration the economic value of the property, relocation becomes a no-brainer.

However, we return again to the question: Cui bono? Who benefits from relocating the state prison? Sen. Jenkins himself has stated that he wished he weren’t a developer because he would love to be on the new Prison Land Management Authority.

Perhaps even more disheartening than Jenkin’s wistful appeal to corruption was a story that the Salt Lake Tribune broke late last week showing that Senate President Wayne Niederhauser might personally benefit from the prison relocation. Niederhauser’s company owns land near the prison, land that would likely see its value increase substantially if the prison were moved. In fact, according to the director of the Real Estate Development Program at the University of Utah, Buzz Welch, property values around the prison have likely already been affected just by the discussion. Welch thinks property values will jump from 10,000 to 15,000 with the prison relocation.

Add Niederhauser to the list of state leaders (Attorney General John Swallow, Lt. Governor Greg Bell) who couldn’t see a conflict of interest if it bit them in the butt.

With two weeks left in the legislative session, it looks like Jenkin’s bill will likely pass. But that doesn’t mean we should stop asking who benefits.

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