Joe Stegner 

The University of Idaho's new lobbyist talks politics, ethics and Rep. Phil Hart

Joe Stegner has had three jobs in his life, including managing a family-run grain elevator business and his current position as special assistant for state government relations for the University of Idaho. But most people know him as Sen. Stegner.

"I'm absolutely delighted when people still call me senator," said Stegner, age 62. "Some people still say that as a courtesy."

Stegner's ties to the U of I run deep. While he was a student, he married his wife Deborah at St. Augustine's Chapel on the Moscow campus. After graduation, Stegner worked in the grain industry for 25 years.

"I sacked more peas and lentils than you could possibly imagine," he said.

After selling his business in 1995, Stegner entered politics, being elected seven times to the Idaho Senate and serving as assistant majority leader. He retired from the Legislature on Dec. 1, when he began his new job as the U of I's new chief lobbyist.

BW spoke to Stegner as he was getting settled into his new State Street office, looking out on the Statehouse.

Do you still maintain a home in Lewiston?

I just signed the papers to buy a home in Boise. Our Lewiston home is now for sale.

Is there some melancholy with that?

Absolutely. We're leaving a home and community that we're very fond of, but I lived about half of my life for the past 13 years here in Boise.

People who do what you do call themselves legislative advisers, but most of us call them lobbyists.

If lobbyists didn't exist today, we would invent them tomorrow. They truly fill a vital need in our government or they simply wouldn't exist.

Do lobbyists make better policy?

You can point to any legislative year and one of the first things they always do is come back and correct the mistakes that they made the previous year. They don't do it intentionally. Some are minor, some are big things that we messed up on. It happens because we don't understand how the final application of new laws will be applied. We truly try to prevent that in the first place by relying on citizens to tell us about those impacts. If you have an interest, we expect you to stay awake and, at the appropriate time, show up and tell us if we're making a mistake.

But you understand that there is a perception that lobbyists can wield adverse influence.

I don't think the perception is entirely accurate. Do people have influence? They absolutely do. Do those influences affect legislation? Without a doubt. I have a pretty strong confidence that people get the government that they deserve and that they want. In the state of Idaho, if you as an individual disagree with the outcomes of the Legislature, in my opinion, it's probably because you're in the minority. Ultimately, decisions made by the Legislature pretty much represent the viewpoints of the people who elect them. Otherwise, these people wouldn't be elected 10, 15 or 20 years in a row. If you don't like what's going on, you better start paying closer attention.

Do you think the Idaho House and Senate do an adequate job of oversight on ethics?

Generally, I have strong support for the ethical standards of the people I associated with for 13 years.

Do you have any particular insight on Rep. Phil Hart's tangles with the U.S. and Idaho governments over his taxes?

Only that I think it's unfortunate. I'm not an expert on the tax situation he's engaged in. I think on the surface, it looks very, very damaging. I can't comment on the legality of his or the government's claims. That's what the courts are for. Ultimately, the proof, in my opinion, is whether or not the people in his district find him to be an adequate representative. And unfortunately they do.

I was recently on a panel where an audience member said, "We really need to do a better job of getting better candidates to run for office." I said, "What you really need is better voters. Because you're really getting the candidates you deserve."

At the height of his complexities, Hart had little to no opposition on the ballot.

What does that tell you about that district? I know there are plenty of people there that find him to be an embarrassment. But the way our system is set up, it is not my role to judge him. It's up to them to judge him. And they continue to return him to office. If you're going to complain about that, you're complaining about the very substance of representative-elected government.

What were your thoughts over the years when you were labeled as the Legislature's most moderate Republican?

It never bothered me very much. It certainly wasn't something that I actively sought. I had a retired reporter tell me recently that I had changed over the course of my legislative career, becoming more moderate. But I think the Legislature changed, moving to the right, making me appear to be more moderate.

I was probably more moderate on social issues. In general, I find conservative views on social issues as a restriction on freedom. Why would the government be interested in limiting anyone's freedom? That's what a lot of those social issues do. I'm troubled and perplexed as to why that's a moderate position.

Students at the University of Idaho have faced tuition increases for the past two school years. Why are we putting a greater financial burden on their backs?

Historically, when the state of Idaho gets in trouble financially, the first thing they cut back has been higher education. Throughout my legislative career, I thought that was a tragedy and voted against a lot of appropriations bills because of that. But it's a reality.

Is there any reason to believe that this year's session will be any kinder to higher education?

At the moment, it's an unknown because we don't know how it will all play out.

2011 was a difficult year for the U of I, with the murder of Katy Benoit. Do you hear more questions or concerns from parents regarding campus safety?

Not that I'm aware of. I think a parent might say, and I would agree, that it's a scary world out there. There's a heightened awareness that campuses play on safety. We have efforts that go above and beyond the safety that you would normally see in the general population. The University of Idaho has made safety the highest priority possible. But we live in a rough world.

Is there any reason to believe that the issue of concealed weapons being allowed on campus might surface again during this legislative session?

There's always that possibility.

Are you prepared to address the issue?

There's not a lot we can do until someone files a bill. There are a number of national organizations and Idaho legislators who make it a target issue.

How do you spend your days now?

My day starts pretty early and goes pretty late. Surprisingly, I haven't had too much time to talk to legislators. I'm assuming at some point, somebody's going to want me to do that.

You have a pretty nice view of the Statehouse from your office window, but it's definitely a different view for you.

It's pretty unique. You know, I had a fairly active role in the renovation of the Capitol.

I'm surprised they didn't name the garden wings after you.

Well, I'm not dead yet.

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