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SALT LAKE CITY — Two more potential sites for the Utah State Prison were approved Friday by the Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission, now part of a political battle between the governor and the House speaker.
The new sites under consideration for the more than $500 million project are in Utah County near Eagle Mountain and in Tooele County near Grantsville, near two of the three sites already on the commission's shortlist.
Another site on the short list, located west of Salt Lake City International Airport, was expanded by the commission. All five sites will be further evaluated by a consultant hired by the state with a report expected by late spring or early summer.
The prison move is being used as leverage in the dispute between Gov. Gary Herbert and House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, over the speaker's refusal to allow the House to hear the governor's Healthy Utah alternative to Medicaid expansion.
The governor declared Thursday there is a 50-50 chance the prison will stay in Draper and all but threatened a veto a proposed bill to give the commission — not the full Legislature and the governor — final say on where the prison moves.
Hughes has long advocated relocating the prison from his district to free up nearly 700 acres of prime real estate for development. He has called the governor's statements about the prison move "hardball."
House Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Friday that the prison relocation will go forward despite the back-and-forth between the executive and legislative branches.
"There is a compelling need to build a new prison. We know it. The governor knows it," Wilson said. "The kind of practical reality is that the way we get a new prison is that we build it somewhere else. I mean, that's just the way this will happen."
There is a compelling need to build a new prison. We know it. The governor knows it. The kind of practical reality is that the way we get a new prison is that we build it somewhere else. I mean, that's just the way this will happen.
–Brad Wilson, House Majority Assistant Whip
A bill from Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, HB262, would require the commission to consider keeping the prison at Point of the Mountain, but it has not been assigned to a committee for a hearing.
"The prison should stay where it is and they can renovate and rebuild on site," Nelson said. "I think everybody is starting to see it that way. We just can't turn a deaf ear to the people."
All of the sites previously identified have significant community opposition. No public testimony was taken at Friday's commission meeting, but the audience included supporters of keeping the prison in place.
"They try to portray it as we don't want better things for our prisoners, we don't want a new prison, which is incorrect," said Heidi Balderree, of Keep it in Draper. "We just think it can be done cheaper by keeping the location."
Balderree, also part of a group organized to keep the prison out of Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain, was among the audience members with signs protesting the potential sites.
Consultants hired by the commission spent much of the hourlong meeting touting the visual appeal of a new, 4,000-bed, state-of-the-art prison, such as the lack of guard towers and razor wire, along with the benefits for inmate rehabilitation.
"The message has been loud and clear to all of us about siting the facility," one of the consultants, Bob Nardi, said of concerns raised about the first three sites identified.
Nardi said the two alternatives presented Friday are intended to minimize unfavorable reactions from the public. He said some sites "will have more challenges and costs than others, but we think we’re over the hurdle of a fatal flaw."
While both the Cedar Valley site off state Route 73 in Utah County and the industrial park site off state Route 138 in Tooele County added Friday are further away from the Draper prison, they are within about a half-hour driving distance.
Proximity to the current prison in Draper is a key search criteria for the commission to ensure a new facility can still utilize the extensive employee and volunteer workforce.
The commission also approved a report to the governor and legislative leaders that included the recommendation that lawmakers give the commission the authority to make the final site selection.
Wilson told the editorial board he didn't want to be "overly dramatic," but the legislation is intended to protect lawmakers from being pressured by lobbyists and keep the selection process "as apolitical as possible."
Contributing: Geoff Liesik