The business community today is remembering the late Gov. Mike Foster, whose legacy includes the creation of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System and the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.
Foster, who served two terms as governor from 1996-2004, died Sunday at the age of 90.
A wealthy Democrat-turned-Republican businessman from Franklin, Foster owned the Bayou Sally construction company and was considered a long shot candidate when he announced his run for governor in 1995 after two unremarkable terms in the state Senate.
But his down-home, plain-talking persona—his campaign ads famously featured him in hunting camo with a rifle and in a welding cap on the job—appealed to a cross-section of voters and propelled him to two successful terms in office.
From the perspective of the business community, one of Foster’s most significant accomplishments was the creation of the LCTCS in 1998, which brought together and strengthened the state’s community and technical colleges into one governing body.
The move greatly enhanced workforce training, at a time when it was badly needed, and also helped lead to more systemic reforms in the state’s higher education system, namely shifting typical community college functions from four-year institutions to the more economical community colleges.
“He had a profound impact on the people of our state on many fronts,” LCTCS President Monty Sullivan says. “With each of the more than 30,000 students that graduate annually, the legacy of Governor Foster grows.”
Foster also is credited with creating the state’s TOPS scholarship program, which was intended to not only enable qualified high school graduates to go to college but to keep the “best and brightest” in the state at a time when Louisiana was suffering from brain drain.
“In an era when most business owners stayed out of politics, Gov. Mike Foster brought his own unique brand of effective leadership from the private sector to the state Capitol,” says Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President Stephen Waguespack. “Louisiana is a better place to both raise a family and start a business today because of the reforms that Governor Foster passed into law.”
Foster worked well with the business community because he talked their talk and understood their needs, recalls Mark Drennan, who served as his commissioner of administration throughout both terms. The late governor, working with chief of staff Steve Perry, was also effective in dealing with the Legislature.
“Mike was really interesting in that every year he and Steve would say, ‘OK, what do we want to accomplish this year?’ and they would do it in a short special session with a reform, focused agenda,” Drennan says. “It was very effective.”
Foster also left a significant legacy in downtown Baton Rouge, where he consolidated state government into several newly constructed office buildings that were developed through a quasi-independent public financing agency without the use of state capital outlay dollars.
The development of those seven buildings in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which was done in conjunction with an overall master plan for downtown, helped spawn the resurgence of the capital’s historic center.
“We moved 3,000 state workers downtown at a time when they were spread out all over Baton Rouge in leased office space,” says Drennan, who recalls initially pitching the governor on the idea as a way to save money long term. “He was a businessman, who understood numbers, so we put together a 50-year projection on how much would be saved and the savings was in the hundreds of millions of dollars and he said, ‘Yep, it’s the right thing to do.’
Foster is survived by his wife, Alice, and two children, son Murphy J. Foster, III, a partner with Breazeale Sachse & Wilson, and a daughter, Ramelle Foster.