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Group wants to use referendum to keep the prison in Draper

(Ravell Call/Deseret News/File)

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — A group that wants to keep the Utah State Prison in Draper has already run into trouble in its attempt to launch a referendum to repeal a new law that includes financing for the relocation process.

The proposed referendum from "Keep It In Draper" to repeal HB454, passed by the 2015 Legislature and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert, came too late to be considered by the state Elections Office.

So Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley, has asked the Utah Supreme Court to order the state to accept the referendum application from the group even though it missed the March 17 deadline, five days after the end of the legislative session.

"I am just trying to give them a chance," Cox said.

But even if the high court gives the group the go-ahead to circulate a petition, it will likely only have a short time — possibly 40 days — to gather some 100,000 signatures around the state to qualify for a spot on the ballot.

A member of the group, Heidi Balderree, a Saratoga Springs mother, fitness instructor and Spanish tutor, said there was confusion over whether the referendum could be filed before the governor took action on the bill.

"If you look at our group, we're ordinary, average citizens who become involved because this is an issue that affects us," Balderree said. "It was our misunderstanding."

She said the referendum would focus on a provision in the new law that allows the community chosen for the $550 million prison project to raise sales taxes to help cover infrastructure costs.

What this does is stall the process. We're trying to get people to realize these five sites are not the only option. Also, we're extremely opposed to any additional tax that would be adding insult to injury.

–Heidi Balderree

"That's a huge part of it because I think everyone can relate to taxes," Balderree said. The provision allowing up to a 0.05 percent increase has been criticized as an incentive for Salt Lake City to accept the prison.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker has sought the ability to raise sales taxes but has said he continues to oppose moving the prison from Draper. A site near the Salt Lake City International Airport is one of five under consideration for a new prison.

Two of the five sites on the Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission's shortlist are in Utah County, in Eagle Mountain and in tiny Fairfield, and the others are in Tooele County, near Grantsville.

"What this does is stall the process," Balderree said of the referendum. "We're trying to get people to realize these five sites are not the only option. Also, we're extremely opposed to any additional tax that would be adding insult to injury."

She said if they are not allowed to go forward with a referendum, they will try an initiative petition drive to put a change in the law on the ballot that would spell out renovating the aging Draper prison must be considered.

"We feel Draper has never been thoroughly vetted as a potential site," Balderree said. Even in Draper, she said, there's support for keeping the prison in place, despite pressure to develop what is seen as prime real estate.

"They're taxpayers, too, and they get it from that standpoint," she said. "Really, this is a local issue but it affects everyone statewide because taxpayers are going to foot the bill" for a new prison.

House Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, the co-chairman of the relocation commission, said even if the referendum were successful, it would have little impact on moving the prison.

They're taxpayers, too, and they get it from that standpoint. Really, this is a local issue but it affects everyone statewide because taxpayers are going to foot the bill

–Heidi Balderree

"I don't think really anything changes in terms of the decision-making process," Wilson said, noting lawmakers separately appropriated $80 million in the state budget to acquire property, begin planning and start construction.

While HB454 does include the authority to issue bonds for the new prison, Wilson, the bill's sponsor, said that won't be needed until mid-2016, so next year's Legislature could authorize the bonding then.

The five potential sites named in February by the commission are currently being examined for geological, topographical, infrastructure and other issues. The commission is expected to receive that report in June and make a recommendation.

HB454 requires that recommendation to be made by Aug. 1, and the governor is expected to call lawmakers into a special session to decide where to put the 4,000-bed facility.

Wilson said a referendum won't affect that process.

"We won't stop that," he said, although there will be a trio of "informational meetings" announced soon. "I get these citizens who don't want the prison in their community. I have empathy for them."

The meeting will be held in northwest Utah County, northwest Salt Lake County and in Tooele County, Wilson said, are are intended to "dispel myths" and answer questions from the public.

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