SALT LAKE CITY -- Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, inserted himself in the middle of a funding dispute between counties and the state over prisoner reimbursement Wednesday, saying he would be inclined to thumb his nose at housing any more prisoners until the state meets its obligation.
The counties and state are obligated to split evenly the cost of housing convicted felons in county jails. For the past few years, the state has fallen below its projected share, Weber County Attorney Reed Richards said. He and other leaders met with a committee Wednesday morning to push for more funding and to remind state leaders of Utah's obligation.
Currently it costs an average of less than $80 a day to house prisoners and the state's current reimbursement has fallen to $27.28 a day. Even a projected infusion of $2 million in new revenue, outlined in Gov. Gary Herbert's budget for 2013, would only bring that average up to $31 a day.
"I know if I was a county commissioner, I would tell the state my doors are shut until you reach $38.97, and there's not a thing you can do about it," Jenkins told an assembled group of county and sheriffs' officials at a morning meeting of the Infrastructure and General Appropriations Subcommittee.
Jenkins said the issue of the state falling short of its 50 percent reimbursement is not new.
"I've heard this presentation many times or something similar to it. One question I have: Why do you continue to take these prisoners, if we don't pay?" Jenkins asked.
Richards said failure to take prisoners would potentially put the counties in contempt. He said counties had little say in the matter.
Leaders from Salt Lake County said the state's default on its reimbursement has taken a toll on its budgets over the past few years.
"There's no option for us. The cost is the cost. We have to pay what the state doesn't pay," Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said.
Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley, said the state hasn't helped anyone by shirking its obligation.
"We're not saving anything -- we're just shifting that responsibility. That's not responsibility. This is something we need to solve," Mayne said.
Davis County Commissioner John Petroff said he knows the Legislature has a challenge in juggling costs with revenues this session, and he expressed hope the state will find a way to fund the counties as much as possible.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, a committee member who oversees the Senate's Appropriations Committee, said it may be unrealistic to expect the state to increase the reimbursement this year. He said the governor's budget item was based on projected revenues that included an extension of the Bush tax cuts at the federal level.
"We're going to hear a whole series of these," Hillyard said of the financial request. "Where's the money coming from? I don't think we are going to be seeing the kind of money the governor projected."