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Statehouse Veteran: Ethics are Also Voters' Responsibility

"You better start paying closer attention."


Demagoguing ethics is an oxymoron--doing it at the Statehouse is head-spinning. Welcome to the 2012 Idaho Legislature.

Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Larry Grant set the pace of the 2012 session, deriding what he called a "culture of corruption and cronyism" tolerated by GOP leaders. Grant pointed to Republicans Rep. Phil Hart and Sen. John McGee as prime examples--Hart with his alleged tax dodging and McGee with his now infamous Father's Day 2011 drunk-driving incident coupled with his pocketing extra per-diem cash while spending the night at his parents' Boise home.

Republican House Speaker Lawerence Denney fired back, saying "incendiary language crafted by the Democrats, like 'culture of corruption,' will make it difficult for the two sides to work together."

But Denney did some finger-pointing of his own, citing Democratic Rep. Sue Chew using a legislative email account to drum up opposition to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's education reforms.

Both parties expressed interest in the creation of an independent ethics panel.

But a perspective on ethics from former Republican Sen. Joe Stegner may be the simplest, yet most conclusive--the ultimate arbiter is the Idaho voter.

"I have a pretty strong confidence that people get the government that they deserve," said Stegner, who recently began his new post as the University of Idaho's Boise-based lobbyist. "Does that mean that the citizenry does a good job of monitoring? No. But if you don't like what's going on, you better start paying closer attention."

Stegner, a seven-term senator, puts the onus of cleaning house primarily on voters, especially in Kootenai County, who continue to send Republican Rep. Phil Hart back to the Statehouse in spite of his much-publicized charges of tax-dodging.

"I think it looks very, very damaging for him as a credible legislator," said Stegner. "Ultimately, though, the proof is in whether the people in his district find him to be an adequate representative. Unfortunately, they do."

In 2010, Hart found little-to-no opposition on the ballot as he cruised to a fourth term.

"What does that tell you about that district? I know there are plenty of people up there that find him to be an embarrassment," said Stegner. "But it's not my job to judge him. It's their job to judge him. If we're going to complain about that, then we're going to end up complaining about the very substance of representative government."