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Careful about Corrections `cuts'

Utah Corrections Director Pete Haun walked into a stiff dose of political reality when shown what a legislative subcommittee wants to do to his budget. The recommendation is down $9 million from what Gov. Mike Leavitt's originally proposed.

That's life on Capitol Hill. But there are other important elements of reality that enter into this scenario, as well.First, the $9 million "cut" casts the Legislature as a fickle fiscal fiend, perceived as not being tough on crime and criminals. That perception problem related to budgeting has rankled legislators to the point they wanted to muzzle Leavitt and prohibit him from revealing a budget well ahead of the session, as is his current practice.

Rep. David Ure, R-Kamas, introduced a bill that would have let Leavitt talk about his budget early but not release a printed copy. That tactic, a probable infringement on the governor's unfettered speech and contradictory to his budgetary role as chief executive, was wisely rejected by the House Government Operations Committee.

As legislative leaders have duly noted, the budget is ultimately the Legislature's, not the governor's. But his role by statute and tradition is to provide a starting point, which he admittedly sells to the public and department heads who may embrace it early as the standard. Then when the inevitable "cuts" come, as with Corrections, legislators are pinned as the bad guys.

But that's life. That's the Legislature's role in the budget process, a dose of political reality it should accept and not fret about. The fact is, this year's proposed Corrections budget totals $164.2 million for fiscal 1998-99, a $6.6 million increase over the current fiscal year. That may not be what Haun and the governor want, but it is an increase regardless of perception.

Another fact should not be lost on the Legislature in its challenging effort to make budget ends meet: Failure to fund a new prison pod in Gunnison may undermine the Department of Corrections' efforts to crack down on rising crime in Utah. Budget "reductions" also may tie Haun's hands in efforts to focus on rehabilitating offenders and decentralizing the prison system through increased county jail contracts.

Curtailing funding may mean relying too much on a proposed private prison, not yet constructed. This page has previously voiced concern about private prisons due to security, liability and access issues, which are still valid.

One final bit of reality for all political players in this little melodrama: When incarceration increases, crime drops. That is a fact that must continue as a foundation principle for the Department of Corrections and the Legislature that funds it. The need for increased bed space continues in Utah to ensure public safety and to maintain a coveted quality of life. There is no inexpensive shortcut around that fact.