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."
"Let's go kill your bill," Bramble replied, turning toward the Senate chamber.
"Let's kill 'em all," Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, chimed in.
In the end, lawmakers passed a series of bills, including enforcement and two guest worker programs that already attracting national attention to Utah for taking on the federal issue.
The governor said lawmakers deserve an "A-plus for being willing to engage. A lot of states wouldn't have the fortitude to tackle the issue for a lot of reasons. I think the Legislature showed a lot of courage."
House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, agreed. "When it comes to immigration, we took a huge step as a state by being a leader," he said.
Drawing perhaps less-welcome attention to Utah was a late-session bill widely seen as gutting the state's 20-year-old Government Records Access and Management Act, known as GRAMA.
HB477 surfaced suddenly and was hurried through the House and the Senate in just days, sparking an outcry from media and public advocates who depend on the act to access government information.
After receiving hundreds of calls and emails against the bill, Herbert spent more than an hour in a closed GOP House caucus, convincing his fellow party members to recall the bill and change the effective date.
Herbert said while lawmakers have been discussing immigration since last summer with Utahns on all sides of the issue, they neglected to do the same on GRAMA.
"That didn't happen," the governor said. "Clearly, there's an awareness now with the Legislature, that they themselves probably think it wasn't quite as open as we should have made it. We're correcting that."
Much of the session's controversy was centered in the House, where members grumbled about debates dragging on especially in the final days.
Lockhart, the first woman in the state's history to serve as House speaker, said she wanted to give all members of the GOP caucus the chance to be heard.
That also meant closing GOP House caucuses that have been open most of the time to the press and public in past sessions.
"Part of having that openness and that ability to talk about things in some ways requires an opportunity for people to talk about issues in a safe place," Lockhart said.
The man she defeated for the speakership, Rep. Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, said all that talk has slowed the process and encouraged too much focus on so-called message bills.
"Other than the opportunity to pander to a crowd, I'm not sure what they accomplish," he said. "Put a gun or an abortion (in a bill) up here and everybody jumps as far right as they can."
Clark, who saw his own efforts fail to rally lawmakers behind calling a constitutional convention, said too many key bills were being rushed through at the end of the session.
Lockhart suggested the job may have turned out to be tougher than she expected.
"It's very hard to please everyone all of the time and I already knew that, but you have a lot of competing interests and colleagues," she said. "Dealing with all those expectations, the magnitude of that, was a little surprising for me."
Republicans controlled more than two-thirds of the vote in both the House and the Senate, even increasing their numbers in last November's election, leaving Democrats little opportunity to influence legislation.
Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, said he noticed a marked difference between the two bodies this year.
"The temperament of the House seems a lot more critical and divisive," Romero said, especially when once again this year voting down his legislation intended to discourage young drivers from using cell phones.
"I guess I was expecting a more enlightened discussion since it had been there before," Romero said. "They made it about defeating the bill."
Contributing: Amanda Verzello