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Gazette opinion: Schweitzer alters his lobbyist rule on Regent Foster

Gazette opinion: Schweitzer alters his lobbyist rule on Regent Foster

Gov. Brian Schweitzer has made a strong commitment to openness in government and to raising ethical standards in public service. For those efforts, we applaud him. But we believe the governor is making a mistake in the case of Regent Mike Foster, a mistake that undermines his call to bipartisanship.

The governor declared repeatedly that he wouldn't appoint anyone who is a registered lobbyist. Mike Foster and Kala French, both appointed to the Board of Regents last year by then-Gov. Judy Martz, have recently resigned from lobbying the Legislature to comply with the governor's no-lobbyist standard.

One would think that Schweitzer would be pleased and ready to embrace these appointees, since he had raised no other objections to their service. But in the case of Foster, the governor's spokeswoman said Schweitzer "would still like to see what role he'll be playing with St. Vincent's." Sounds like the governor has moved the finish line.

Hospital job

Foster's job isn't new or mysterious. He's been employed by St. Vincent Healthcare since the summer of 2002 as senior director of advocacy. St. Vincent is owned and operated by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health System, which also operates St. James in Butte and Holy Rosary in Miles City. Upon being appointed to the Board of Regents last year, Foster had two children enrolled in the University System.

Foster also worked in the Martz administration for a year and a half as labor commissioner and later as her policy adviser. He holds degrees in education and business and a master's in public administration from UM. He has been a teacher, an analyst for the Public Service Commission, director of a hospital rate review organization and director of the Montana Contractors Association. He has been elected to the Montana House and Senate.

His broad business experience, educational background and contact with the University System make Foster well-qualified for the board. Moreover, it's particularly helpful to have a regent with insight on Montana's health-care industry, which is a major employer of university-trained workers.

One can't escape the suspicion that Foster's GOP ties are the reason Schweitzer hasn't withdrawn his opposition to Foster's appointment.

Senate decision

Of course, it's the Democrat-controlled Senate that has the responsibility of confirming Foster. Some Democrats have indicated they won't support a GOP regent. However, there's also a Senate tradition of supporting former senators.

Will tradition and Foster's credentials override the push for another Democratic BOR appointment? That's up to 50 senators.

Meanwhile, Schweitzer ought to stick to the ethical standard he set. Foster quit his legislative lobbying as Schweitzer wanted. The governor ought to thank him, stop objecting to his confirmation and encourage the Senate to evaluate Foster on his qualifications as a regent. The board, which meets in Helena next week, would benefit from the continuity and experience Foster can provide.

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