By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
A trio of Montana legislators on Tuesday announced their proposal to introduce a bill next session that would prevent the state from naming buildings in the Montana University System after candidates running for elected office.
The legislation, proposed by the three state Democrats – including one from Missoula – is aimed at Republican gubernatorial candidate and RightNow Technologies founder Greg Gianforte, who has pledged a donation of $8 million to Montana State University – one of the largest donations ever to the Bozeman-based school.
In exchange, the donation stipulates, MSU will rename a campus building after Gianforte and his wife, Susan.
State Rep. Tom Facey, D-Missoula, said Gianforte was putting the Montana Board of Regents in a difficult position with the timing of his pledge. The proposed legislation, he said, would simplify the regents’ future decisions.
“We want to give regents some direction in the future,” said Facey. “I wouldn’t say (Gianforte) wants to buy the election, but I would say he wants to buy good will and positive press.”
Facey believes the proposed legislation would take politics out of renaming academic buildings. He’s urging the Montana Board of Regents to postpone it’s pending vote until after the November election.
“It’s another way to keep money out of the election and have them be more about elections and process,” said Facey. “(Gianforte) could have done this two years ago, or he could have done it after the election. Why do it now? It’s not just questionable, it’s downright not right.”
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, which reported the gift last week, the Gianfortes had been discussing a major gift to the school for several years. The agreement was signed on May 11. The family also made a $1 million donation last year to MSU’s computer science program.
State Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, is cosponsoring the proposed legislation with Facey and Rep. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte. Woods said big money in politics at both the local and national level has corrupted the system.
“I think it’s part of a disturbing trend with people with a lot of money being able to buy elections,” said Woods. “(Gianforte) is using the money and leveraging it to influence voters. It puts the Board of Regents in a bad position. How can they say no?”
Gianforte’s $8 million donation would see MSU rename its Computer Science Department to the “Gianforte School of Computing.” It would also name a campus auditorium after Gianforte.
“I would appreciate that kind of concern for public education, but I’d appreciate it more if there weren’t strings or votes attached to it,” said Woods. “I find the timing of it unfortunate.”
Gianforte’s communication’s director Aaron Flint said the donation does not pertain to the campaign and directed questions to MSU.
Tracy Ellig, director of university communications, said MSU doesn’t discriminate based on political views.
“The doors of the university are open to students, faculty, staff, alumni and donors of every political persuasion,” Ellig said. “We never ask any of those groups what they’re political leanings are.”