“A square deal for every man, great or small, rich or poor.”
President Theodore Roosevelt
August 25, 1902
In a speech in Lynn, Massachusetts in the summer of 1902, Teddy Roosevelt first coined the phrase “a square deal”. This short phrase would become his message brand for his successful campaign to retain the presidency in 1904. It was in 1902 that the president was stumping for candidates leading up to the midterm elections where he hoped to create momentum for some of the most progressive legislation ever to be passed by a single Congress. The Congressional session of 1903 would produce one of the most substantial sea changes in the history of American politics, moving the country away from a hands-off laissez-faire attitude towards commerce to the strengthening of the Sherman Antitrust Act, substantial railroad regulation, strong food inspections, drug regulation and an empowered Department of Commerce and Labor to investigate monopolies.
Historians all agree it was hard-driving Teddy Roosevelt who brought about the progressive success of the 1903 Congress and that the crowning achievement was the creation of the Bureau of Corporations within the new Department of Commerce and Labor to investigate monopolies. This provision passed easily in the much more progressive leaning House, but the Senate was far less receptive to the idea. It was a young senator from Minnesota by the name of Knute Nelson who would take up the battle on behalf of the president within the reluctant Senate.
Knute Nelson was the first United States senator of Norwegian descent and one of the great populists in our state’s history. Of illegitimate birth, he arrived in America from Norway at age 7 with his single mother in 1849. He learned how to curse and fight with the best of them as a paperboy on the streets of Chicago while staying with his uncle. After his mother wed, his stepfather moved them to Dane County, Wisconsin. During the Civil War, Knute joined the Wisconsin Fourth Volunteers and served with distinction as a corporal.
Upon returning home from the war, he worked hard to educate himself to become a lawyer and received admittance to the Wisconsin Bar. He even served two terms in the Wisconsin Assembly. He was encouraged to join other Scandinavian immigrants flooding to settle the outward reaches of Minnesota and found his place in the community of Alexandria where he rose to the level of serving as their State Senator for one term. In 1882 he took on a handpicked mining and Rail Road candidate to win a hard-fought a seat in Congress. He would later win election as governor followed up by an appointment to the U.S. Senate in 1895 where he gained a reputation of battling for the little guy.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that the scrappy Nelson was able to overcome substantial opposition with the assistance of Roosevelt to successfully pass a strong Bureau of Corporation amendment to the Commerce Bill to help ensure competitive markets in our country and a square deal for smaller businesses.
In the spirit of Nelson and Roosevelt in this year’s Minnesota legislative session, Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Hanska) is making sure Minnesota landowners who want to do the right thing in preserving critical pieces of land also get a square deal. Last year the Minnesota Senate slipped in a provision that would treat conservation easements inequitably when it came to valuation for property taxes. Instead of valuing these new easements at the market value the new law forbid county assessors from reducing a property’s assessed base to its true market value when protected by the conservation easement. Therefore, the new law creates a disincentive for doing the right thing.
Rep. Torkelson introduced a bill (HF2102) this session to repeal the law from last year and treat conservation easements equitably. On Tuesday he successfully moved the bill with unanimous consent through the House Property and Local Tax Division. Just like Roosevelt’s Square Deal proposals, this smart tax revision will have its hardest challenge in the Senate. This would be a good time to let your State Senator hear your voice calling for a square deal for all conservation easement holders and to repeal this ill-advised tax provision from last year on conservation easements. Landowners doing the right thing deserve the square deal embodied in Torkelson’s HF2102.