Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY – Illegal immigration and open records may have dominated the 2011 Legislature that ended at midnight Thursday but lawmakers spent plenty of time talking about feral cats, too.
Both legislative leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert said they were pleased at the accomplishments made during the 45-day session — and, no doubt, that it was over.
"By and large, was it perfect? No. But it was a pretty good, solid, productive session," the governor told the Deseret News. "At the end of the day, there's going to be a group hug and everybody's going to feel good."
Herbert said he hoped "some of the emotionalism" that surfaced this session doesn’t overshadow what did get done, especially fully funding public education for the first time in several years.
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said Utahns should see that the Legislature worked hard.
"Government is intended to be difficult," Waddoups said. "If they take this session as a whole, they have to give us a high grade."
House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said lawmakers met their chief goal, balancing the budget without increasing taxes — and without having to accept an unpopular proposal from the governor to switch self-employed Utahns from annual to quarterly income tax payments.
Lawmakers did delve into weighty issues while coming up with about a $12 billion state budget that cut overall spending by 1 percent. They also dabbled in states' rights, constitutional compound republics and federalism.
Washington, D.C., remained an object of disdain again this year as conservatives invoked the words of the founding fathers to assert the state's rights to determine its fate on public lands, health care and numerous other issues.
But lawmakers also gave into some distractions, including arguing at length over allowing farmers and ranchers to shoot feral animals and designating a state firearm.
Just as the immigration debate gave rise to "I could be illegal" T-shirts, the great cat fight produced "I could be feral" lapel pins along with seemingly endless jokes not to mention some meows in the House chamber.
And an issue that could have generated headlines, another major change to the state's alcohol laws making more restaurant liquor licenses available, all but went unnoticed.
Public education, though, was so thoroughly scrutinized during the session that an appropriations subcommittee couldn't agree on where to cut the 7 percent initially slashed from all state entities in the base budget process.
Until lawmakers received the final revenue estimates that showed more money coming to the state and allowed most of the base budget cuts to be restored across the board, schools stood to lose some 11 percent.
There was real concern over how heated the session would get.
A rally outside the Capitol building against changes to the open records law Thursday night moved inside to the House gallery but a stern warning from House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, sent protestors scurrying.
During hearings on immigration bills earlier in the session, Utah Highway Patrol troopers and legislative security stood sentry and committee chairmen banned cheering or jeering, and even threatened to call police if things got out of hand.
Passions generally remained in check, but there was a heated exchange between Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, and Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, in the hall outside the House chambers the night legislators debated illegal immigration.
"This is exactly what the public didn't want," an angry Herrod told Bramble. "I'm working the floor to try to kill it."
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