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Lawmakers have loads of questions about '98 Games

As dozens of Utah dignitaries and bureaucrats arrive in Nagano for the Winter Games spectacular, most Utah lawmakers are sitting back and watching with more than idle curiosity.

Not that they care all that much about whether Picaboo Street recovers from her concussion or if the American bobsled team can take home the gold.They want to know how the Nagano Games were funded, what the costs were to local governments and the impacts on the local infrastructure. And they want to know what kind of government oversight there is in Japan.

"We may not be there, but I promise we will have a lot of questions when they (the Utah delegation) return," said Senate President Lane Beattie, adding that legislative leaders intend to formally quiz Utah officials at the end of the month when they return from Nagano.

The 1998 Winter Games will take place during the heart of the legislative session, meaning lawmakers will be debating tedious budgets while the Utah delegation to Nagano is "observing" the events.

At the Games will be dozens of Utah officials, ranging from several Salt Lake council members and Gov. Mike Leavitt to bureaucrats representing state agencies and local law enforcement officers.

One lawmaker, Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell, D-Granite, is also planning to attend the Games, although not in his official legislative capacity. Howell has been named senior executive for the 2002 Winter Games by IBM and will observe the Games in that capacity.

The delegation would be well-advised to take some notes. "I want to know how much money the government of Japan has put into the Games," said Rep. Jordan Tanner, R-Provo, and a member of the Sports Advisory Council, which oversees certain aspects of preparations for Utah's Games.

Tanner wants to know the number of volunteers and how they were recruited. He wants to know who paid for the athletes' housing and what will happen to the housing when the Games end. He wants to know about security and the role of government in oversight of the Games.

"If those kinds of questions are not asked, then we have made a poor investment in sending them over there," he said.

Speaker of the House Mel Brown, R-Midvale, is more interested in the overall impact of the Games on the local infrastructure and what kind of costs were passed along to local residents for transportation, security and health care.

"I want to get an idea how much it really is going to cost us," Brown said. "We hear wild and crazy stories, people saying it isn't going to cost us anything. But we know that it is, and we want to take a serious look at what those costs are going to be."

Hard questions aside, Brown said there is minimal skepticism among Utah lawmakers about hosting the 2002 Winter Games.

"The Legislature, like the public, is willing to sit back and allow them (SLOC officials) to demonstrate that they have this under control and have it moving in a positive direction," Brown said. "If they have not demonstrated that in the next year and they still have not shown us they can do it within budget, then there will be a lot of nervousness up here."

Some voices of criticism are emerging. Two resolutions are being filed to tweak the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. One resolution asks SLOC to add a representative of local government to its board of directors for greater oversight of the Games.

The other resolution emphasizes the state's position that no state funds will be used to construct an access road to Snowbasin Ski Resort, the host site for downhill and super G races.

On the less-serious side, lawmakers will also consider a resolution calling on Utah school districts to close shop during the 2002 Winter Games so the students can work as volunteers. Another resolution calls for an amendment to the Utah Constitution to allow the 2002 legislative session to convene after the Games, thereby allowing lawmakers to participate in the festivities.

Even though the Games are four years off, there is a growing sense of urgency on Capitol Hill that the clock is running on Utah's preparations.

There is also growing bipartisan support for the basic concept that the Games must be accessible to rank-and-file Utah residents, not just high-rollers and Olympics bigwigs.

"The real measure of the Olympics experience will be how much access Utahns have to the Games," said Rep. Steve Barth, D-Salt Lake, House minority whip. "If Utahns are stuck watching the Games on television like the rest of the world, then we will have sacrificed for nothing."

Brown suggests Utah officials at the Nagano Games should maybe avoid talking to the athletes and hobnobbing with Olympics officials and attending receptions. Rather, he wants them talking to the local residents about whether they found the entire experience worthwhile and whether they benefited at all from hosting the Winter Games.

"If the citizens of Utah do not see it as a positive experience, then it will be a negative experience as far as we are concerned."