Ancient alchemists searched for a way to turn lead into gold. Modern politicians offer plans to provide more and better government services for less money.
The latter of those might sometimes be possible, if our elected officials would be more willing to approach old problems in new ways. And if they don’t over-promise what can be done and how fast.
It is unlikely that anyone who was paying attention to the whole process was all that surprised when it came out that Utah’s new state prison, for which the ground was broken less than two years ago, is going to take more time, hold fewer prisoners and cost more money than what the leaders of the Legislature told us when they rushed through the sight selection process back in 2015.
None of that necessarily means that building a new prison, with state-of-the-art facilities and programs, is no longer a good idea. Besides, it’s too late to turn back now.
But would it be too much to ask that, as we go forward with the prison and all the other facilities and programs that make up state and local corrections efforts, that the people of Utah get an honest accounting of what we are likely to spend and what we can expect to get for it?
A recent report from the Utah Department of Administrative Services tells us that a prison that was supposed to cost taxpayers $650 million will actually set us back an additional $130 million, that it will have room for 3,600 inmates instead of the 4,000 that was promised, and that it won’t be open until the early part of 2022, 18 months behind the original schedule.
Marilee Richins, deputy director of the Utah Department of Administrative Services, wasn’t wrong when she explained that costs are rising above the original estimates for at least some reasons beyond the state’s control. There are other big projects going on around here — notably the giant rebuild of Salt Lake International Airport — which are sucking up both qualified construction workers and the materials they work with, driving up the price of everything. The president’s tariffs on steel and other building materials are also a factor.
But it is also true that, well after decisions were made and construction begun, it dribbled out that the original ballpark estimates from prison-building experts was that this one would probably cost $860 million. Members of the state’s Prison Relocation Commission — the goal of which was pre-determined by its very name — insist that they weren’t lowballing anyone and that their intent was that costs could come down if the project got smaller.
Which it did. But, in a state that is growing as fast as ours is, building a smaller prison instead of a bigger one will only work if other plans to divert people from the Big House and into smaller treatment, educational and rehabilitation programs are aggressively implemented. Which means aggressively funded. Which, in a less reactionary state, would have meant accepting full Medicaid expansion and the hundreds of millions of dollars that would have come with it.
Smart corrections programs that hold the truly dangerous while giving everyone else a second chance are worth their cost. As long as our elected officials don’t go back to a pattern of promising us the moon while being proud of only paying for a pebble.