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Completing a whirlwind trip through the Legislature, lawmakers gave final approval Tuesday to two big borrowing proposals: bonding for $1 billion to accelerate state highway projects and seeking an extra $100 million for the new state prison.
Some attacked the breakneck speed of the proposals as they zipped through the Legislature while allowing little or no public comment.
The prison measure, for example, was not released until the day before its final passage. It had no public hearing. House debate on it lasted three minutes. Only after it passed did sponsors hold a news conference to explain why it was needed.
The highway bonding bill had its first and only hearing Monday morning, passed the Senate that evening, and won House approval Tuesday morning.
"It's frustrating to have a 45-day session where stuff like that comes out the last four or five days," said House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City. "It's not just a question of the Democrats being shut out; it's a question of the public being shut out."
"It's alarming," said Chase Thomas, counsel for the progressive-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, "that our legislators believe they can pass laws without involving the public in the process. The public should have the opportunity to receive an explanation why this money was needed and what it would be used for, followed by an opportunity to comment."
Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, sponsor of the prison bill, said at a news conference after its passage that it was rushed because of how budget numbers came together late in the legislative session. Lawmakers had less one-time money available for the project than expected, so a quick bill for bonding was developed.
Gov. Gary Herbert complained to reporters Tuesday that the prison bond was portrayed in some stories as revealing an apparent increase in its costs. The Legislature previously approved bonding for $475 million for the project, and the bill added another $100 million for a total of $575 million.
"We've always estimated the cost of the prison to be $650 million total," Herbert said. "It actually has come down from what some of the original estimates were."
When the prison project was debated and approved in past years, state officials continually used a figure of $550 million as the cost of construction.
Marilee Richins, operations director for the Department of Administrative Services, confirmed that the cost of a new prison at any site was always estimated at $550 million. The actual site selected, however, has required another $100 million for utilities and roads but that site also is expected to be less expensive than others to operate.
The governor's proposed budget released in December had included the extra $100 million for the prison. "So this has not been rushed through. It has not been hidden," said Herbert. "It's been open and ascertainable for anyone who read the budget."
Utah lawmakers, however, start their budget process from scratch and didn't spend much time or energy publicly discussing or debating the prison expense during the session.
Meanwhile, the $1 billion bonding proposal for highways would allow the Utah Transportation Commission to choose projects to prioritize from its lists of approved work and would likely target the most urgent jobs or ones that would provide the greatest savings.
Carlos Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, said many projects already high on lists of planned projects include improving various sections of Interstate 15 along the Wasatch Front.
That list includes a project to widen and improve I-15 in Utah County between Lehi Main Street (where a major rebuilding of I-15 terminated a few years ago) to State Road 92 at Thanksgiving Point. Another in Davis County would extend express lanes from Hill Field Road in Layton to Interstate 84.
Some Salt Lake County projects could include adding a southbound lane on I-15 from State Road 201 (near 2100 South) to 10600 South or 12300 South. UDOT also is planning to reconfigure the south I-215 interchange with I-15, including widening some bridges.
Braceras notes UDOT also hopes to solve a serious congestion problem on northbound I-215 from about 9000 South to I-215. Many drivers try to move right to exit onto I-215, while at the same time many cars just entering the freeway try to merge left. UDOT plans to add bridges to separate the traffic.
Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, sponsor of the bill, said the state could save tens of millions of dollars on a variety of projects by avoiding inflation on project prices while taking advantage of currently low bond rates and save drivers and businesses millions more lost to congestion over that time.
The $1 billion in bonding would come over four years as needed and would have a 15-year payback period.
The highway bonding has been promoted in an unusual way. Harper and allies have said it may help raise more money for Utah schools.
"Once we do this, we know it's going to have a cascading benefit on economic development. It will allow for more jobs, more businesses," Harper said earlier, contending that in turn will raise more taxes to help schools. That comes as the Our Schools Now initiative is proposing to put on the ballot a $750-million-a-year income tax increase for education.
Legislative leaders and Herbert have opposed the ballot initiative, saying higher tax rates may chase away companies and hurt the economy.