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$31 MILLION IN BONDS OK’D TO BUILD PRISONS

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Partisan politics and pet projects aside, Utah lawmakers agreed to borrow $31 million to build new prisons in a measure that passed Wednesday.

"We will build (the) prisons, and I think we'll bond for them," Gov. Mike Leavitt predicted Tuesday. "The corrections and women's facility must be done; I will not allow turning these people free. Lawmakers know that, and they will find a way to get it done."Borrowing money in the same year the state has record surpluses - enough money to give an $80 million tax cut - has grated on conservatives who wanted no bond at all but would have preferred paying cash for new buildings. But the small size of the bond has angered moderates and liberals who wanted a larger bonding package to free up more dollars for programs and to build a variety of new buildings that have been on waiting lists for years.

The philosophical chasm resulted in political theatrics Tuesday when the House killed a $31 million bond package only to have the Senate turn around and pass virtually the same bill.

But even those who voted for the bond were not necessarily happy with it, some because they were philosophically opposed to a bond and others because projects were left off.

For example, Sen. Mike Dmitrich was visibly upset that the bonding list did not include $2 million for a youth detention center in his district in Carbon County - a project high on the governor's priority list but ignored by both the House and Senate.

Dmitrich's only solace was that Republican leadership in the Senate agreed to intent language that if there is a budget surplus in the 1997 budget, the youth detention center will be the top funding priority.

"Better than nothing," Dmitrich said.

The Senate bonding package includes $7.6 million for capital improvements like repairs to existing buildings; $13.9 million for a 192-bed expansion to the Gunnison corrections facility; $8.6 million for a 144-bed women's prison and $750,000 for design of a state forensics hospital.

The failure of the bond bill in the House resulted from a strange collection of bedfellows. Democrats voted as a bloc against the prisons-only package, supporting instead an amendment that would add to the bond several higher education projects and $350,000 for domestic violence shelters.

Sensing a political blunder, conservative Republicans opposed to any bond joined the Democrats in voting no.

Utah prisons are near capacity, and prison officials are nearing the point of releasing inmates early just to make space for new prisoners.

And for a Legislature that prides its reputation as being tough on criminals, releasing inmates early is not an acceptable solution.

Through the debate, some lawmakers continued to lobby for other bond projects, like design money for buildings at Southern Utah University and Salt Lake Community College, money for domestic violence shelters and an access road to a Weber State University satellite campus to be built in Davis County. That would have upped the bonding package from $31 million to $33.5 million - still among the smallest bonds in recent legislative history.

In arguing for a larger bond, Capital Facilities Committee chairman Rep. R. Mont Evans, R-Riverton, said he wanted to resurrect the recommendations of the committee, overturning the hand-picked projects authorized by the Executive Appropriations Committee.

The committee had worked to create a balance of projects that spanned the entire state, he said.

"We have tried to bring balance to the bond bill," Evans said. "There are critical projects that need funding in all areas of the state."

But critics like Rep. Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville-Bennion, called Evans' argument "preposterous" and a "ridiculous formula."

"This isn't a balance thing at all," Waddoups said, accusing Evans of tagging on special projects to win votes. Rep. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, agreed. "Let's not hang a bunch of ornaments on it," he said of the bond bill.

In caucus, House Democrats vowed to hold out for the additional projects. "Some of those items have been on the list year in and year out," House Minority Whip Rep. Kelly Atkinson said. "It gives us an opportunity to `wheel and deal' a little bit."

They made good on their promise - 19 of 20 House democrats voted against the bonding package.

Atkinson and others criticized GOP leadership for allegedly setting budget priorities behind closed doors and with little input from the Democrats. "It's their budget, let's let them put up the votes for it," he said.

Assistant Minority Whip Grant Protzman likened the standoff to a high-stakes poker game. "If they want to play poker with the budget," then they had better ante up, he said.

Rep. Byron Harward, R-Provo, chuckled at all the political hand-wringing over the bond, pointing out the irony that the state's spending limitation law makes it tough to spend surplus money on critical needs, thereby forcing otherwise conservative lawmakers to borrow money. Bonds are not counted against the spending cap, which limits growth in state government to a formula involving growth in inflation and population, among other factors.

Less controversial is a $50.6 million revenue bond package that includes a new human services build-ing in Vernal, Davis County court complex, club house at Wasatch Mountain State Park, liquor store in Snyderville, student center at the College of Eastern Utah, Washington County courthouse, cancer research center at the University of Utah and facilities for the visually handicapped.

All of these buildings will be paid for with revenue generated by their operations. For example, student fees will pay the bond for the CEU student center.