Legislature's final push means staff toils over weekend to finalize budget, bills and put it all on paper

Published: Saturday, March 3 2012 4:19 p.m. MST

Printing specialist Willie Smith prints the House Journal in the Legislative Printing Office and bill room at the state Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Friday, Mar. 2, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY  — After all the lobbying, politicking, calculating and deliberating by Utah legislative leaders over how to spend some $13 billion in tax revenue, it all comes down to Willie Smith.

Smith, the lone, full-time printing specialist in the Legislative Printing Office, will toil throughout the weekend to ensure that a copy of the proposed state budget is on the desk of all 104 Utah state lawmakers when they arrive at the Capitol Monday morning.

Smith, who mans a printer about the length of a compact car that can print 144 pages a minute, will be the first Utahn to see the budget and bonding bills when they're all put together. If not for his part in the process, lawmakers wouldn't be able to vote on the bills.

Smith, who has worked in the printing office since 1989, takes it stride. "As long as this thing's running, it's not that stressful," he said, pointing to the massive printer in the basement of the state Capitol.

While lawmakers enjoy two days off before tackling the final days of the 45-day legislative session next week, legislative offices will be buzzing all weekend as fiscal analysts put the finishing touches on the budget and other large appropriations bills. Meanwhile, legislative attorneys and researchers will be hard at work preparing amendments and substitute bills.

"It is really our prime time. We gear up for this the whole year," said Michael Christensen, who has been director of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel for 12 years.

Senate Budget chairman Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said the weekend before the days of the marathon session is literally a sprint for legislative staff.

"(Legislative Fiscal Analyst) Jon Ball and his staff will literally be working all night," Hillyard said Friday afternoon. "Some of them will be sleeping at their desks until we get this done."

Part of the challenge is budget analysts can't put the pieces together until legislative leaders agree on the budget they will present to lawmakers.

Utah is unique in the respect that all lawmakers serve some role in assembling the budget, whether they are in leadership or sit on an appropriations subcommittee. Some become very strong advocates for programs or departmental budgets, which means Hillyard and House Budget Chairman Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, are tasked to finesse the state's finances. And those efforts require the labors of fiscal analyst who make sure after the political decisions are made that the state budget is in balance.

"How would you like to have 104 bosses?" Hillyard said.

As fiscal analysts handle the financial matters, attorneys and researchers will burn the midnight oil putting the fine touches on requested amendments and bill substitutions.

"There's no suits, that's for sure," said Christensen of the weekend uniform. "It's not like we're in our pajamas but it's casual dress, for sure." Meals are ordered in to keep up the staff's morale and strength. Hillyard said the chairs of appropriation committees also provide a box of oranges and apples to the staff to show their appreciation and provide them a healthy snack.

The atmosphere may be a bit more relaxed but the legislative staff takes its responsibilities seriously, Christensen said.

"They're just a very dedicated staff, highly professional. They're very dedicated to the Legislature," he said.

While the last weekend is perhaps the most grueling part of the session, Christensen said Utah's 45-day legislative session is relatively short compared to other state assemblies that meet 120 days, even year-round such as California.

"We hit the ground running. We have to be running at full speed at the beginning," Christensen said.

"We log lots and lots of hours in our office alone. Our office alone has probably had 5,000 overtime hours since November."

Lawmakers from other states marvel at the efficiency of Utah's process, Hillyard said.

In five weeks time, for instance, lawmakers hear some 900 bills during committee meetings, Christensen said. That's in addition to meetings on budget matters.

"People from other states are always asking me 'How do you do that?'" Hillyard said.

And how do they do it?

"We stay focused. We have deadlines. We know we have to meet the deadlines. We have a great staff. They know the budget very well," Hillyard said.

A passion for the legislative process helps, too, Christensen said.

"In the end, it works out pretty well. Our freedoms are pretty much intact at the end of the session," he said, grinning.

As for Smith, the weekend is a test of endurance. The last night of the legislative session is perhaps the most grueling because there are numerous and frequent requests to print amendments and substitute bills until the final gavel falls.

"It's hurry up and wait. They'll send a rush and you print it and then you wait," he said.

On the bright side, once the Utah Legislature adjourns at midnight Thursday, the legislative staff has Friday off, a comp day for working Presidents' Day.

It's a day many people on Capitol Hill anxiously await.

"I can hardly wait until next Friday." Hillyard said.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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