Ex-legislators now hold a fourth of U regents' seats

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 10, 2011 - 9:10 PM

A bill would allow only one as some wonder who is being served.

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Steve Sviggum

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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A swearing-in ceremony on Thursday ushered in a new bloc on the University of Minnesota's governing board: ex-legislators.

Former lawmakers now make up a quarter of the Board of Regents for the first time. That is raising questions about whether legislators are looking out for the U's interests -- or their friends.

Last month, Republican lawmakers filled two of four open seats on the board with ex-colleagues: former Rep. Laura Brod and former House Speaker Steve Sviggum. They join Dean Johnson, who was once Senate majority and minority leader.

Controversy often attends the selection of people to fill the 12 unpaid seats on the U's Board of Regents. But this time, it's provoked an attempt to change the law.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, introduced a bill that would limit the number of former legislators on the U board to one. A law is necessary, she said, because the Legislature "has no discipline when it comes to former colleagues."

One ex-legislator might add useful experience, she said, but three "skews the perspective of the board."

Republican legislators say they picked the best people for the job and point out that when the DFL was in charge, in 2007, they tagged Johnson, one of their own. (Actually, Johnson has been both a Republican and a DFL senator.)

For their part, Sviggum and Brod say they won't play a partisan part in their new roles. Some have questioned whether Sviggum can advocate for the U after years of voting for cuts in its state funding.

"We're here to serve the best interests of the university," Sviggum said on Thursday. "I hope my politics days are over."

He opposes any limits to former politicians on the board for the same reason he resists having a reserved spot on the board for someone who represents labor or agriculture. Sviggum fills one of those roles, as a farmer.

"I'm not into quotas," said Sviggum, who teaches part time at the U's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "I'm more into performance."

The loss of the traditional labor seat ignited criticism over the election process last month. The Republican majority snubbed incumbent regent Steven Hunter, secretary/treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, although he won praise from regents and legislators from both parties.

Denying him a second term was a "slap in the face" to working-class people, Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said at the time.

Picking more than one ex-legislator pushes out other voices on the board, Pappas said. "It was a shame to lose Steve Hunter."

While the votes largely fell along party lines, most DFL legislators voted for one Republican: Thomas Devine.

A lifelong volunteer for the U, Devine decided to run for a regent seat in part because after the November election, he thought he might have a chance as a lifelong Republican.

After learning that Brod and Sviggum were candidates, he said, "I knew I had obviously a lot to do to get my name beyond the household recognition."

So the insurance executive and Chanhassen resident spent hours at the Capitol each day. He attended every session of the House and Senate higher education committees. He met with 115 legislators.

"I felt my candidacy had become legitimate," Devine said, something several legislators confirm.

In the end, he felt the fix was in for Sviggum and Brod. He called that "a loss for the process" and worries that it will encourage the election of more ex-lawmakers.

"What happened is going to have a lasting effect," he said. "I don't think anybody back in 1858 ever visualized that the Legislature would control the Board of Regents."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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