You may have thought the most powerful man in Utah government was Gov. Mike Leavitt. If not, how about Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Zimmerman or House Speaker Mel Brown or Senate President Lane Beattie?
But no, the most powerful man (with only slight tongue in cheek) announced his retirement Wednesday night - and he is Leo Memmott, chief budget officer of the Legislature.It's Memmott who, midway through each session, comes up with new revenue estimates that can sink or float the most powerful lawmaker's bill. He says where the money comes from and, to a great extent, where it can go.
In announcing his Sept. 1 retirement Wednesday, Memmott said his 32 years working for the Legislature have been a pleasure and he has great respect for the institution and for the people in it. While the press may make fun or question some lawmakers' actions, "they don't know you like I do," said an emotional Memmott, who turns 63 this year.
"I once was in a meeting with Governor Leavitt," Brown said. "He said he wanted to stay around in state government until he could become as powerful as Leo Memmott."
Memmott was hired the first year that lawmakers decided to hire a full-time staff - 1966. He was one of three professionals and a secretary who made up the Office of Legislative Fiscal Analyst. The budget in 1966, for the whole state, was only "several hundred million dollars," Memmott remembers. When the office director quit four years later, Memmott was named the chief budget officer, and he has held the post ever since.
This session, lawmakers passed a $6.4 billion budget for next year. And Memmott has a staff of 15 analysts and three secretaries putting the massive budget together.
Has he liked his 32 years working for the Legislature? "If I didn't, I wouldn't have stayed so long," says the man who speaks so softly that during Executive Appropriations Committees, where he is the chief staff person, the microphone must be turned up so the audience can hear him.
The standing joke in legislative halls is that Memmott has coffee cans filled with millions of dollars buried around the Capitol grounds.
"There are no coffee cans. Although we do find some funds sometimes in strange places," he said with a smile.
Memmott was living in Colorado when his cousin's wife told him that there was a job opening in Utah government for someone who knew accounting. He applied for the new office and was hired, oddly enough, by Sen. George Mantes' father. In 1966, then-Sen. Ernest Mantes, D-Tooele, was the ranking Democrat on the powerful legislative budget committee. The elder Mantes liked the young, 31-year-old Memmott, and thus began Memmott's long association with the Legislature.
All state departments were located in the Capitol in 1966, and Memmott was crammed into a small office in the Capitol building itself. Over the following 32 years Memmott's hair grayed, his staff expanded and the money he dealt with went from millions to billions.
"But there have always been good people here" in the Legislature, Memmott said Wednesday.