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Q&A with Steve Johnson | ‘Most people are looking for more than just labels’

Author: Dan Njegomir - July 23, 2018 - Updated: July 25, 2018

Larimer County Commissioner and political veteran Steve Johnson, in a parade in Loveland in 2016. (Photo courtesy Steve Johnson)

During his many years in Colorado’s state House and then its Senate, Steve Johnson was the quiet, thoughtful guy standing off to the side while others pounded the podium or dominated press conferences — waiting his turn to speak as he seemed to reflect on his thoughts. When he held forth at the mic, he was measured and methodical; far more about mechanics than ideology, and without a trace of bombast.

A lifelong Republican, yes, but Steve Johnson was never one to quote chapter and verse from his party platform. He always preferred to work with fellow party members as well as those across the aisle on practical solutions to seemingly intractable problems, focusing on the nuts and bolts of how to make things work.

He’s the kind of lawmaker you’d expect to serve on the legislative Joint Budget Committee, which of course he did, taking on the thankless task of confronting budget realities in ways that can run afoul of both parties’ political interests.

Now 58 and more than two decades after he was first elected to the state House of Representatives, Johnson brings his same moderating approach and practical  sensibilities to the Larimer County Commission. In his third term as a commissioner, he makes clear in today’s Q&A that there can be no higher calling than serving in local government. His time as a commissioner may even have refined his view of public office: “I wish I knew what I know now about local government when I was in the legislature.”

Colorado Politics: Your years in the state House and Senate required a sort of macro-focus on Colorado-wide issues. Your more recent tenure as a Larimer County commissioner have required you to do almost an about-face and refocus on the hyper-local. Just the other day, the Coloradoan newspaper reported on a commission hearing on a proposed water pipeline that drew such intense local interest — and so many voices — that you and your commission colleagues had to continue the proceeding until later this month. And yet, probably few residents in Denver or points further south on the Front Range have even heard of the issue.

What’s it like making that transition from legislative issues with a statewide sweep to local matters that run deep? Is one more difficult than the other? More fulfilling for an elected official to work on and ultimately resolve?

Steve Johnson: I love my job as a county commissioner.  And having served in the legislature is very helpful in this job.  Counties are sub-units of state government, and can only do those things for which we have been given statutory authority.  So counties follow the legislature very closely and actively work on dozens of bills each session that are of interest to local government. Conversely, anyone who has served in local government would be a better legislator for having done so.  I wish I knew what I know now about local government when I was in the legislature.

Local government is very rewarding.  I tell people all the time that local government has more impact on your daily lives than the state or federal government. We are involved in such a wide variety of issues such as public health, human services, public safety, parks and open space, transportation, economic development, child welfare and adult protection issues, land use and zoning, to name a few.

At a time when national politics is so polarized, embattled and frankly often just downright embarrassing, local government is the place where things get done.  Its largely nonpartisan practical problem solving.  And there is great innovation taking place in Colorado’s 64 counties.

For just one example, in Larimer County every TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) client is required to meet with a job coach in our Workforce Center.  These folks help the clients overcome barriers such as child care, housing and training to find not just a job, but (also) a career that they love.  One job coach told me a lady in her doctor’s office came up to her and said, “You don’t remember me, but three years ago you helped me get a job in this office.  Today I’m the office manager.”  That’s why we do what we do in local government, for rewards like this that make our communities a better place to live, work and raise a family.

Steve Johnson

  • Larimer County commissioner; first elected 2008.
  • Served in the state Senate from 2002 to 2008 and was assistant minority leader for the GOP 2005-2006; served in the state House 1996-2002.
  • Veterinarian in private practice for 16 years in Loveland — owning and operating the animal hospital of Colorado’s other veterinarian-turned-politician, Republican former U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard.
  • Teaches organic chemistry at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
  • Past chair of the Larimer County Planning Commission; former chair of the county GOP.
  • Graduated Centennial’s Arapahoe High School; holds a B.S. in chemistry and a doctorate of veterinary medicine from Colorado State University.

CP: You’ve long been described as a “moderate” Republican. Do you agree with the label — and what does it mean? Have labels like “conservative,” “moderate” and “liberal” — nowadays, “progressive” — evolved in their meaning during the decades you’ve served in public office?

Johnson: I don’t like labels.  I think they are oversimplifications that shortcut the need to really understand what candidates are all about.  They are overused, too.  The last Republican governor’s primary was embarrassing in my opinion, as the candidates fell all over themselves claiming to be the most conservative and attacking their opponents for not being so.  Not many real ideas or issues were discussed.  These same candidates then rush to the middle to run in a general election.  Campaigns become mostly negative and voters are turned off not only to the election, but their government as well.  It’s a real disservice to all.

I think most people are looking for more than just labels.  They are disappointed by both parties, and justifiably so in many cases.  They are tired of two parties that spend more time making the other look bad than they do solving real problems that Coloardans face.  Republicans have become so anti-government they can’t even address real needs, and Democrats think bigger government is the answer to everything. Neither seems to most voters to deliver on their promises. They blame the other party; little gets accomplished, and citizens get more and more disillusioned with their government.

Personally, I think I represent most Coloradans in my thinking and in my service in the legislature and now at the county.  In the legislature I worked with both sides of the aisle on practical solutions.  I’m fiscally conservative and socially more libertarian.  Most people here want their government to be frugal and get value for their tax dollars, provide needed services but stay out of their lives as much as possible.  We are a very “live and let live” state.  Do you own thing, as long as you’re not hurting me.  That evolved out of our Western experience and need to be self-reliant.  I think this has served our state very well.

CP: Why did you enter public office in the first place? You’re a veterinarian — not a likely launchpad for a political career, though it worked out well enough for Colorado’s former U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard. Did that play any role in your decision to seek office? And how did you juggle a busy veterinary practice, which you ran for years, with your pressing duties down at the State Capitol in Denver?

Johnson: There are several reasons why I entered public life. First, I grew up in a political family. Dinner meant watching the news and hearing my dad’s commentary on the Vietnam War and the day’s events. Dad was a precinct committeeman in Arapahoe County and I attended caucuses before I was old enough to vote.  I was also a Boy Scout, and we were taught that as a citizen you had a responsibility to be involved in your nation, state and community — to vote and even to run for office.  I like people, issues, and public policy.  I was frustrated by problems of poverty in a land with so much opportunity.

But another big reason is a story I haven’t told much.  My mom was born in Berlin, Germany.  She and my grandparents lived in West Berlin.  My aunt (her identical twin sister) lived in East Berlin.  When I was 8 years old, I visited my relatives in Berlin.  The communist East Berlin government only permitted us to visit my aunt and uncle for 24 hours.  That was the only time I ever got to see them, because of the policies of a totalitarian regime.  I remember the soldiers inspecting the undersides of the streetcars as we left East Berlin looking for people trying to escape to freedom.  Many died trying to cross the Berlin wall. No one tried to get into East Berlin.  These things made a big impact on an 8-year-old boy.  Politics has real consequences for people and families.  We take our freedoms for granted.  After that visit, I never did.

CP: While in the legislature, you served on the powerful Joint Budget Committee, which has a lot to say about how the state government is going to spend its money from year to year. In fact, a lot of Coloradans may not realize that the “governor’s budget” is really, strictly speaking, only a proposal to lawmakers in Colorado’s legislature-dominant form of state government. What are some basics about budgeting tax dollars that a lot of voters and taxpayers many not realize?

Johnson: Here are some things I took away from two years on the Joint Budget Committee.  First, as you alluded to, the six members have a whole lot of power over the budget.  They decide the “long bill,” the budget that gets presented to the legislature.  There are very few changes to it after it is introduced during the two weeks it’s debated.  It always amazed me that something this important had so little debate — one week in each chamber.  Most legislators weren’t that interested in it.  There should be more time spent on it and more involvement by the other 94 legislators.

Secondly is how much of the budget is non-discretionary or programmed in with little chance to change it.  For example, K-12 education is constitutionally mandated to increase by enrollment (growth) and inflation.  Medicaid is an entitlement that has to be funded.  Corrections is driven by sentencing.  This represents the vast majority of the budget.

I tell people all the time that local government has more impact on your daily lives than the state or federal government.

CP: Of which legislative accomplishment are you most proud? What about your years in the legislature do you regret most?

Johnson: I was able to accomplish a lot during my 12 years in the legislature.  Probably the most significant in terms of lasting importance was my sponsorship of Referendum C in the Senate along with Sen. Peter Groff (D-Denver).  It was very much a bipartisan effort, with significant support from Republican Gov. Bill Owens and Democratic House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

It was an excellent example of bipartisan cooperation to solve a serious issue at its best.  It provided for a five-year timeout from the revenue limitation of (the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR), resetting the revenue limit and fixing to a large extent the so-called ratchet effect of TABOR.

It was complicated policy and hard to explain.  But in the end with over 1,000 groups endorsing it, the voters supported it.  If it had not passed, about a quarter of the services our state government provides would not be in place today.  It really is the only large change to the constitutionally restricted budget amendments (the others being Gallagher and Amendment 23) that many people have come to realize are having deleterious effects on the ability of the legislature and local government to provide the services that Coloradans want and expect.  This “Gordian Knot” remains one of the most difficult policy challenges before us, with no easy answer and very little meaningful leadership for a number of reasons from either party, unfortunately.

I have to say I have no regrets about my time in the legislature.  I served with and got to know many wonderful people on both sides of the aisle as well a phenomenal dedicated and hard-working staff.  I guess one thing I wish I had done is to realize what a tremendous resource exists in the budget committee analysts. Few people in the state have their knowledge of the financing, workings and performance of state government.  They are available to any legislator as a source of information, but very few outside of the six Joint Budget Committee members ever use them.

CP: Here’s your chance to dispel the old quip at the State Capitol about state legislators who become county commissioners — that they do half the work at twice the pay.

Johnson: It is true that county commissioners get paid a lot more than legislators.  I think our legislators are paid too little.  It isn’t a four-month job, and even if it were, not many people can take four months off of their job to serve there.  The idea of a citizen-legislature is an attractive one, but it isn’t completely true.  Yes, fortunately we have many average people there, but most Coloradans can’t run for the legislature.

I think a lot of people are very cynical about elected officials.  Unfortunately, a few high-profile cases cause this to be sometimes justifiable.  But I have found in both the state and local government that the people there are good people who love this state and just want to see it be better.  They aren’t corrupt and aren’t in it for the money.  Most take a financial hit to serve in public office.  And for many it takes a big toll on their family lives, as well.

CP: What’s the best thing about being an elected policy maker in a place like Larimer County — and what might make it a bit different from serving in office in some other Colorado climes?

Johnson: One thing I love about Colorado is that most everyone loves this state, loves living here, and loves their local community.  Larimer County is no exception.

As far as public policy goes, one great asset we have is a very high degree of collaboration among our local governments and with our private and non-profit partners as well.  Whether its preparedness for natural disasters; cooperating on urban renewal authorities, working for greater access to needed mental health services, planning for more environmentally sustainable solid waste options, or providing services to families and kids in crisis, we all figure out how to work together to get better results and greater efficiency and effectiveness for our taxpaying citizens. I hear all the time from people in other communities and states that they are amazed how well everyone works together in Larimer County.

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir is the opinion editor for Colorado Politics. A longtime journalist and more-than-25-year veteran of the Colorado political scene, Njegomir has been an award-winning newspaper reporter, an editorial page editor, a senior legislative staffer at the State Capitol and a political consultant.