Let’s Not Go Backward

“It is said that reforms never go backward, and I look for this law to become general in Minnesota in the near future.”

Gov. Samuel R. Van Sant


Samuel R. Van Sant was a short, plump, jovial riverboat captain from Winona, Minnesota. He made his wealth off of moving commerce up and down the Mississippi River from St. Paul to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1900 he became governor of Minnesota by a very small margin as a Republican and soon won the hearts of progressives throughout the state for two very important initiatives. The first was the direct primary, which he is referring to in the above quote from his first inaugural address.

The second was the establishment of the State Board of Control to take on the railroad monopolies. The old riverboat captain didn’t have much love for his main competition on the iron rails. He particularly detested the Northern Securities Company run by James J. Hill and J.P. Morgan. The jovial riverboat captain turned out to be a very determined trustbuster. Van Sant’s battle soon turned into one of the biggest court dramas to ever come out of Minnesota in this suit to dissolve the Hill-Morgan railroad monopoly. He soon won the backing of President Teddy Roosevelt under the newly passed Sherman Antitrust Act. In 1904 the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, upheld the determination that the Northern Securities Company was an illegal restraint of trade and the trust was broken up.

Unfortunately, the 2012 Legislature seems to be trying to prove Van Sant’s inaugural address assertion wrong regarding reforms never going backwards. This week as the Legislature approaches its 2nd committee deadline, they have passed several bills rolling back environmental permitting and protections. They’ve even proposed one bill that would privatize permits. In other words, the polluters would be allowed to develop their own permit.

The Legislature has also shown some backward motion on citizen oversight of appropriations from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy funds. As this constitutional amendment was adopted, the citizen advocates made sure the statutes developed citizen oversight boards to ensure that the money would not be lost in the normal legislative budgeting free-for-all. The goal was to make sure that the dollars would actually go for the purposes they were intended. Therefore, Conservation Minnesota and other outdoor organizations have long stood for the preservation of recommendations from these citizen councils.

Unfortunately, in the House there have been a little cracks in this relationship with the citizens councils. The Legislature has substantially reduced the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council recommendations for the Mississippi River Corridor project near Brainerd. They also directly appropriated $1 million to an ethanol plant in Morris outside of the normal granting process through an agency.

The Senate has stayed true to the recommendations from the citizen councils and hopefully pressure from them and the governor will bring the final package in line with the intent of the original legislation. It is our hope that in the end, the old riverboat captain will be correct “that reforms never go backwards”.

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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