On Feb. 22, the same Government Relations Council members who’d previously chased down legislators in eager pursuit of votes found themselves chased down by legislators in eager pursuit of ice cream — Aggie ice cream.
A few days earlier, USUSA officers and members of the Government Relations Council (GRC) had pursued Utah’s congressmen and women throughout the halls of the Capitol building.
They’d lounged against banisters outside the House and Senate chambers. They’d hidden behind pillars, only peeking out to track a desired legislator’s approach down the wide hallways of the Capitol building. They’d even stood patiently outside the marble-tiled restrooms to catch Utah’s legislative decision-makers on their way in or out.
They’d introduced themselves as students of Utah State University and made their case for the advancement of HCR016, a resolution declaring a mental health crisis throughout Utah’s public colleges and universities. And legislators listened. HCR016 passed the House and moved onto the Senate for consideration.
And then the tables turned.
With 825 half-pints of flavors like lemon custard, caramel cashew and — of course — Aggie Blue Mint, GRC members spread out across the Capitol to show their thanks to legislators, staff and even visiting citizens as part of the yearly tradition that is Aggie Ice Cream Day.
Neil Abercrombie, the director of government relations at USU, said he wasn’t sure when the tradition began, but that “it really is a major tradition up here (on Capitol Hill). Folks ask about it well in advance.”
Aggie ice cream is “one of the hottest commodities on Capitol hill,” Abercrombie said when he addressed the GRC before the handouts began.
“Last year, I saw a legislator take one, lick the top of it and put it in the freezer like a five-year-old with sibling rivalry,” he said.
As they took up posts around the Capitol and began handing out their goods, GRC members were met mainly with thank you’s and even a couple exclamations of “Finally!”
But no one was more excited than USU’s own alumni.
Rep. Elizabeth Weight graduated from Utah State in 1976. This was her first legislative session and first Aggie Ice Cream Day. For her, it’s been “an adventure.”
“I love it! It’s really exciting, it’s pretty intense,” Weight said, eyes sparkling over her half-pint of Aggie Blue Mint.
Rep. Christine Watkins reminisced about her time at Utah State, ice cream in hand. “I remember my favorite thing was the cinnamon rolls. I don’t know if they still have those at the student center. They made cinnamon rolls to die for — I’m not kidding — and they were like $1,” Watkins said, waving her plastic spoon for emphasis.
Though the goodness of the student center’s cinnamon rolls might have stayed the same, a lot of other things changed since Watkins graduated in 1973.
“You guys have buildings where we parked,” she said.
GRC members took the opportunity to thank legislators and ask about the legislative session.
And of course, there was the eternal question: Is Aggie ice cream better than the creamery at Brigham Young University?
“Once you get to perfection, you can’t get better,” said Rep. Norm Thurston, who earned his bachelor’s degree at BYU. “So both BYU and Utah State I think are at the perfection stage.”
Thurston said he thought the legislative session was moving along but it was still hard to know what some of the bigger issues would be.
“Nothing has really popped out yet and said, ‘I’m a big issue, come and tackle me,’” Thurston said around a mouthful of caramel cashew ice cream.
It’s his favorite flavor — something he shares with Gov. Gary Herbert, whose aid, Aggie alumna Kirsten Rappleye, grabbed a stack of half-pints for Herbert and his staff.
During her time at USU, Rappleye was also head of the GRC. She said Aggie Ice Cream Day is a good opportunity to hold legislators accountable.
“I don’t think they (the legislators) get enough of their constituents up to Capitol during the legislative session to hold them accountable,” Rappleye said.
Though lobbying during Aggie Ice Cream Day wasn’t allowed, Abercrombie said he thought the event helped strengthen USU’s “close partnership with the state of Utah.”
“We’re not just up here begging for more money to keep tuition low,” Abercrombie said, “but we’re really working together on things to help solve problems or help improve Utah’s economy or have a better understanding of different policy issues.”
But in terms of funding, he thinks a “thank you” to the legislature goes a long way.
“I think they know that funding is usually what it’s all about,” he said, “but I think today is really much more of an opportunity to say thanks and let them know they’re appreciated than to use it as another ask.”
As far as asks go, Abercrombie’s “big ticket” item this year is $22 million to fund the renovation of USU’s Biology and Natural Resources building.
However, Abercrombie said it will be an “uphill battle” to get the funding.
“I think it will get funded — I’m just not sure it will get funded this year,” he said.
For USU president Noelle Cockett, funding to increase compensation for Utah State employees is a top priority this year.
That could prove tricky, since the legislature can’t just increase salaries for Utah State. They’d have to increase all state-funded salaries by whatever amount is approved for USU employees, so something as small as a 2 percent increase could, as Cockett put it to the GRC, “whack off” a sizeable portion of the legislative budget.
She, Abercrombie and the GRC are hopeful, though, that the lasting taste of Aggie ice cream on their tongues will keep Utah State in legislators’ minds.
“We hear a lot about Aggie ice cream and I’d like to think that it’s because it’s such a fabulous product,” Cockett said, “but I also think that it signifies the Aggies are here and it is stunning to me how much support Utah State has here in the legislature.”
Photos by Sydney Oliver
Graphic by Emmalee Olsen