Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Ed Alter has been handling Utah's finances since 1980. Now 66, Alter plans to step down after his current term.

State Treasurer Ed Alter could not be more excited as he shows off a new system for processing checks mailed to the state that gets the payments in the bank faster than ever.

"Watch this," he says as an assistant rips open an envelope, removes the checks inside and sends them through a new, desktop machine that reads all the necessary information into a computer program that handles the deposit.

While that probably isn't too thrilling to the typical Utahn, it certainly is to Alter, who will have spent 28 years managing the state's money when he steps down at the end of his seventh term in 2009.

At 66, Alter has already spent the bulk of his professional life as state treasurer, handling billions of dollars and overseeing the issuing of billions more in bonds. It's a job that doesn't attract much attention from the public but one that Alter obviously relishes.

Eyeing the pile of checks, he almost shouts, "I want that in the bank and I want credit for it tonight so I can invest it tonight." Getting that money in the bank quickly so it can be transferred into the state's short-term interest-bearing account means more money for taxpayers.

How much extra interest can the state be earning? "Millions," Alter said, smiling broadly at the state's latest efforts at what he calls "cash mobilization" that puts Utah ahead of many private businesses.

"People think government is lazy and inefficient, but in our shop, we're better than a lot of the private sector," Alter said.

When he was first elected in 1980, checks routinely piled up for several days before being sent to the treasurer's office. It could take days before, say, revenues from a speeding ticket paid in Wendover made it into the state's bank account.

"It was casual. It was not serious business," Alter said.

Even when money was deposited daily, there were problems. Back in the days when state liquor stores accepted only cash, hourly employees were responsible for carrying as much as $800,000 to a night-deposit box.

Alter said he helped the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control remedy the potentially dangerous situation by talking lawmakers into funding regular cash pick-ups at the liquor stores by an armored car service.

The state treasurer is also responsible for returning unclaimed property to Utahns. Millions of dollars annually in everything from old stocks to government refunds are returned to thousands of people — including Alter himself last year.

"It's a great, great consumer service," he said of the program, which, much to his embarrassment, returned several hundred dollars to him after he lost and then forgot about an expense reimbursement check from the state.

His list of accomplishments also includes helping Wall Street make the switch from government bonds issued on paper to an entirely electronic process that saves the expense and trouble of having to physically transport pieces of paper across the country.

Such feats have largely escaped the notice of most Utahns but have helped make Alter a recognized figure in the financial world. That, he said, has been enough to keep his job interesting all these years.

"You've got to remember where I came from. Finance was my major," Alter says when asked about his seemingly endless enthusiasm. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1966 and an MBA degree a year later from the University of Utah.

About the only part of being state treasurer that he hasn't embraced is the necessary politics involved in holding onto a public office. Always a "good, solid Republican," he had little interest until friends talked him into filing for the statewide office at the last minute.

"I was living happily ever after," Alter said of the job he held at the time he decided to run — assistant treasurer at the U. after spending five years as an accountant in Los Angeles, where he became a CPA.

Thanks to the benefits of riding Ronald Reagan's coattails in 1980, he said, he won with some 70 percent of the vote. He said he enjoyed "living in the money world" for most of each term before having to run for re-election.

"I'm not much a political animal," Alter said. "The problem is, every fourth year you've got to go back to the public and tell them what you've done for them lately." Calling himself shy, he said he doesn't like to "crow about our latest efficiencies. Other politicians do, because they're ambitious."

But a state treasurer should be different, Alter said. The post requires a skilled professional focused on finances, not on using the post as a stepping-stone. His greatest fear in leaving office, Alter said, is if voters elect as his replacement someone who plans to learn on the job.

"My legacy will only be worth anything if they are able to build on it and make it better," he said. "It could go downhill." For that reason, Alter said, he has endorsed his longtime deputy, Richard Ellis, also a Republican. So far, Ellis is the only declared candidate for the 2008 race.

Not surprisingly, Alter said he has mixed feelings about not running again. "There's a great deal of satisfaction in working with good people," he said, noting his office has some of the longest-serving employees in state government. "At some point, though, you have to let go."

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