Utah State Prison bill jumps ahead amid questions of conflict
About 24 hours after making it out of committee, a bill looking to move the Utah State Prison off of 690 acres in Draper leap-frogged a long list of bills and won preliminary approval from the Utah Senate.
Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said he wanted the bill which took three tries to pass committee fast-tracked so it could get a thorough hearing in the House before the Legislature adjourns March 14. Jenkins said studies have predicted the move could generate as much as $20 billion in economic impact and as many as 40,000 jobs over the next two decades.
"If we do nothing because of our fear and trepidation, then literally nothing will happen," said Jenkins. "I think we at least need to take a leap forward here."
SB72S2 won preliminary approval on an 18-7 vote, despite objections to the makeup of the 11-member board that will recommend where to move the prison and what to do with the 690 acres where it now stands.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, acknowledged before the vote that his real estate development business owns a housing development Spring View Farms about four miles west of the current prison, but insisted there is no way he could personally profit on the prison development.
Niederhauser said his company bought the land 10 years ago, before he was in the Legislature. They have built homes on the property and the last 80 to 100 homes will be sold by sometime next year, meaning he won't have an interest in the property well before any decision is made on what to do with the prison.
"I just don't see that having any impact," Niederhauser said. "It's great to have the question asked â¦ but that hasn't even crossed my mind."
Buzz Welch, director of the Ivory Boyer Real Estate Center and the Master of Real Estate Development program at the University of Utah said Draper is not a good spot for the prison, but he is troubled by Niederhauser's financial interest and his role in its potential relocation.
With the prison gone, property values will jump instantly by $10,000 to $15,000, which could mean several million dollars over a number of units, and some of that may already be taking effect.
"Because the discussion is being handled the way it is, and it's being expedited the way it is, I do believe these property values are already seeing an impact," he said.
In addition to his property holdings near the prison, Niederhauser is also listed as secretary and treasurer in Mansell and Associates, a company founded by his mentor, former Senate President Al Mansell.
Mansell was Niederhauser's boss nearly three decades ago and made Niederhauser his chief financial officer before Niederhauser and a friend started their own business. Mansell is also one of the partners in Point West Ventures, one of the eight groups that submitted a "request for information" expressing interest in the prison move.
Niederhauser, who was Mansell's handpicked successor to his Senate District 9 seat, said he hasn't had anything to do with the company for more than a decade and was surprised he was still listed on the company's paperwork. He said he would have himself removed.
Niederhauser was not on the floor and didn't vote on the prison bill Thursday. His property ownership near the prison was first reported by Salt Lake City Weekly.
The bill gives the Senate president the authority to appoint one of the 11 members on the prison relocation board, but Niederhauser said he would make it a group decision among Senate leaders, so there would not be questions about the selection.
Jenkins' bill passed the Senate with relative ease, but there were concerns expressed about the makeup of the 11-member board created to study the relocation and development of the property.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said the board's makeup cedes too much authority to the governor, who would appoint eight of the 11 members.
"Why would the other three even bother showing up?" Urquhart asked. "We've just given all the authority here to the Governor's Office."
He ended up voting for the bill.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said he believes the prison needs to be moved, but is concerned about the plan for financing the project and is "really concerned about the process."
Hillyard was one of just two Republicans joining all five Democrats in voting against the bill.
Judy Fahys contributed to this report.
Editor's Note: The story's author is the brother of a Utah Department of Corrections spokesman.