After six months of working 12-hour days to draft a state budget, Senate Ways and Means Committee staffers needed something to laugh about by June.
This year, their joke of choice was an inflatable pink video game character known as a Balloonicorn.
The character became a sort of mascot for nonpartisan Ways and Means Committee staff, and the theme of their annual group photo – a 25-year tradition that helps them keep their sense of humor amid days (and nights) filled with research, bill writing and number crunching.
After the Legislature approved a two-year budget last Tuesday, the committee staffers gathered in the Senate wings to take this year’s photo with the Legislature’s two budget writers: Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, and Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina.
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Nearly 20 staffers and the two lawmakers posed with the wide-eyed, air-filled unicorn while wearing matching T-shirts, all emblazoned with the horned creature’s likeness.
It’s all part of a tradition that dates to 1990, said Steve Jones, senior fiscal counsel for the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Each year, committee staffers pick their favorite long-running joke of the session and then base a group photo on it, he said.
In 1995, they posed with buckets to symbolize the metaphorical buckets of money budget writers had to work with that year, Jones said.
Two years ago, Hill and the committee staffers dressed up to mimic a zombie apocalypse, an analogy for the crisis the Legislature almost caused by bringing the state government to the brink of a government shutdown.
So why the Balloonicorn this year? In various ways, staffers were repeatedly joking about horses and ponies throughout the Legislature’s six-month megasession, Jones said.
“In any budget negotiation, you have to give the other side a horse to ride out on, or a pony to ride out on,” Jones explained, referring to the idea that each side needs something in the budget they can point to as a victory.
Hill, the committee chairman, said pony jokes also followed comments made during committee hearings about how everyone wants “a free pony” in the budget.
In one memorable instance, Frank Ordway, lobbyist for the League of Education Voters, referenced ponies in February when testifying in favor of a bill that would have required ballot titles for citizen initiatives to include the measures’ projected costs.
“If you’re going to offer up an initiative for a pony for all, we should know how much each one of those ponies actually costs,” Ordway said, referencing Initiative 1351, last November’s unfunded class-size reduction measure.
When it came time to plan the Ways and Means Committee’s group photo this year, Jones said he asked his adult son to dig through the family basement to find old toy pony figurines that could be used for a pony-themed shot.
Jones’ son emerged with another option: the Balloonicorn, a blowup version of a character that aids players in a shooter video game called “Team Fortress 2.”
The Balloonicorn quickly became a hit, at one point being suspended from the ceiling of the Ways and Means Committee offices and also joining lawmakers for a few of their private meetings, Jones said.
The Balloonicorn even popped up on Twitter, though Jones said he and other committee staffers aren’t behind that profile and don’t know who started it.
Jones said diversions like the committee’s annual photo tradition and the Balloonicorn help Senate budget-writing staffers maintain “a wonderful team spirit and camaraderie.”
“We are ordering pizza and Chinese food every night ... It’s high pressure,” said Jones, who has been a part of the Ways and Means staff since 1988. “We try to work together and have fun together.”
Hill said he supports anything that boosts staff morale during long budget-writing sessions and evening meetings that sometimes stretch into the early hours of the morning.
“It’s a great staff and they work really, really long brutal hours, and yet they get along well,” Hill said.
The Ways and Means staff will soon get a break — the Legislature is expected to finish its work this week.
Jones said the annual photo tradition will continue during future legislative sessions, though it’s impossible to say what staffers will come up with as their next theme.
They’ll figure it out eventually, between all the inevitable late-night budget briefings and group dinners consisting largely of pizza and Diet Coke.
“You basically are seeing your coworkers much more than you’re seeing your family,” Jones said of life during the legislative session. “If you can’t have fun with it, then you should find a different job.”