In Memoriam: Gary Olson: October/November 2012 | STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE
Gary Olson retired as the longest-serving director of the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency in December 2010.He died Sept. 18 of cancer. He was 57. For three decades he was one of NCSL’s strongest advocates and closest friends. We will miss him.
Gary Olson had a gift for numbers.
Whether it was how many strokes he took on the golf course (he counted every one) or the bottom line on state revenues, Gary’s numbers had integrity. He was a nuts and bolts, business kind of guy who didn’t believe in spin. So during Michigan’s toughest economic period, during a recession that started in 2001 and continued through the decade, Gary Olson was just the kind of guy the state needed.
For 20 years, Gary directed one of the most respected and influential fiscal agencies in the nation. He never shied away from presenting tough policy options to balance a budget requiring cuts up to $1 billion a year for several years. His credibility gained the trust of Republicans and Democrats.
“When Michigan struggled through unquestionably tough economic times, Gary Olson was a guiding light. His forecasts, foundation of the state’s economic picture, were rock solid,” said former state treasurer Doug Roberts, who preceded Gary as director of the Senate Fiscal Agency.
The Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference was one of Gary’s proudest initiatives. He met with the House fiscal agency director and the state treasurer twice a year for 20 years, during some of the state’s darkest hours, to agree on how much revenue it would take in so they could develop budgets with no—or at least few—surprises. Two Senate majority leaders who worked with Gary during the most difficult economic times—Ken Sikkema and Mike Bishop—said they couldn’t have done it without him. It was a time Gary made some of the largest contributions of his career to the state.
He used his gift for numbers to make the most complex fiscal issues understandable. John Lindstrom, publisher of the Michigan Gongwer News Service, wrote that reporters said it was Gary “who made the sometimes bewildering world of public finance clear to them. Or at least more clear.”
Former Michigan Governor John Engler, who served as Senate majority leader in the 1980s, said, “Gary Olson’s job in Michigan required him to be a budget expert who could speak honestly about what the data revealed. His integrity, candor and humility made him both successful and much-admired by all who knew him.” Gary’s reputation as an outstanding economist and a man of unquestioned integrity earned him a well-deserved place on the national stage. He served as president of the National Association of Legislative Fiscal Offices and was a former staff chair of the National Conference of State Legislatures. As NCSL staff chair, he worked to expand minority participation in NCSL staff activities.
Gary was a young, newly named chief economist of the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency when he came to his first NCSL meeting in 1982 and met Steve Gold, one of the nation’s foremost experts on state fiscal policy. It was the beginning of a friendship and a relationship with NCSL that lasted three decades. Both men attended the University of Michigan and both were economists. When Steve Gold died at the age of 52, his life and work became the inspiration for an award to celebrate his legacy—the Steven D. Gold Award. It is given annually by NCSL, the National Tax Association and the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. Gary Olson was the 2010 recipient, and said at the time, “It’s the biggest honor of my career.”
Gary was an exceptional public servant, a down-to-earth Midwesterner with an easy laugh and sense of humor, as well as an adventurous and creative side. “Gary was a gourmet cook,” said Ellen Jeffries, his deputy director for 20 years who succeeded him as director. “He was as meticulous about that as he was with everything else. He loved to travel and see new things, and he would eat anything!” And he loved his mighty Wolverines. Gary was past president of the Greater Lansing University of Michigan Alumni Club, and served on many community boards. Committed to public policy, he served on the advisory board of Michigan State University’s Political Leadership Program and trained freshman lawmakers through the university’s Legislative Leadership Program.
Gary didn’t believe the Fiscal Agency staff should ever rest on its laurels. “He had a work ethic and integrity,” Jeffries said. “We had to do our research, find out what the facts were and not waiver from that. And I don’t think we ever did. If we got the budget done one day, the very next day he’d say, ‘OK, I want you to write an issue paper on that report.’ He never rested. He was an inspiration because he had such high standards for himself and imparted that to us, and it kept us always learning something. He wanted us to take our knowledge and make it into a product senators could use. They may disregard some of it or take some of it, but that never discouraged him. He was positive always.”
Gary retired as the longest-serving director of the Senate Fiscal Agency in December 2010. He had directed a staff of 23. When he left, he shared his wide range of budget and pension issue expertise with Public Sector Consultants, a research and program management firm.
He died September 18 of cancer. He was 57.
“As Gary always said, it is what it is,” Jeffries said. “And the Senate Fiscal Agency is what it is because of Gary.”
“His death at only 57 years of age comes too soon and deprives the world of an outstanding public official,” said Governor Engler.
Gary was “one of the finest public servants I have been honored to know in the past 40 years,” said Roberts. “I will miss his wonderful friendship, his easy humor, his humility and stature as a great economist in the face of so many economic headwinds.”
For three decades Michigan’s Gary Olson was one of NCSL’s strongest advocates and closest friends. We will miss him.