A hairy arm, not Gov. Dayton’s strategy

tumafeature“. . . that frightening ‘hairy arm’. . .”*

Former State Sen. Jack Davies

Jack Davies was a State Senator from Minneapolis from 1959 through 1982. During his tenure in the Senate, he was one of the most respected in the areas of criminal law and the courts. He also served as president of the Senate in his last 2 years. He was appointed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals in 1990 where he served for a decade. He still is an esteemed Capitol regular, volunteering for many initiatives at the Capitol even though he is well into retirement. He was also a popular law professor at William Mitchell College of Law where he taught legislative process and also wrote a very concise book on the subject – Legislative Law and Process in a Nutshell. A good read for any aspiring lobbyist.

In that book he describes a time-honored legislative strategy known as the “frightening hairy arm”. He states, “A bill is sometimes introduced with some obnoxious feature. Critics pounce on that frightening ‘hairy arm’ as the point of vulnerability in the proposal. Sponsors may defend the provision for a time, but before that critical vote they delete it. Opponents are left fighting the rest of the bill, which they may not have previously criticized or even studied. Inclusion of the provision may have been tactical from the beginning, deleting the hairy arm gives the appearance of compromise. . .”*

At the beginning of session it looked as if Governor Dayton, with the release of his budget, was setting up a classical frightening hairy arm legislative play with the inclusion of the business-to-business sales tax. Most of the negative criticism around his budget focused on this attempt to raise about $2 billion in revenue with little focus on the other portions of his budget. This play was giving time and room for the DFL leadership in the Legislature to start crafting an alternative budget proposal that surely would present better in light of the frightening hairy arm in the governor’s proposal. Senator Davies makes a critical point in his book that the timing of pulling the frightening hairy arm will make or break this play. Pull it off too soon and your critics will have ample time to regroup.

If Governor Dayton was attempting this time-honored legislative maneuver, it would appear that he fumbled the ball over the last week. Surprising many in a small speech at a regional Chamber of Commerce, he announced that not only was he dropping his business-to-business sales tax proposal but most of the other remaining sales tax increases as well. The story quickly went viral. This Thursday the Governor followed that up with the release of his formal supplemental budget, making significant changes to his original budget submitted in January. Those changes include dropping most of the sales tax provisions. It is common after the final budget forecast in February to make revisions, but it is highly unusual for a governor to make such a wholesale change to his original proposal.

The move has now given his opponents time to regroup and they are already vigorously attacking the other portions of his budget proposal. More importantly, it seems to have frustrated DFL legislative leaders who felt they lost the room to maneuver with their budget proposals as the oppositions focused on the hairy arm of the business-to-business sales tax. Privately some key legislative leaders are grumbling that they are essentially putting together their budget without trying to figure out what strategy the Governor is employing.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Governor Dayton simply detests the gamesmanship that goes into the legislative process. I believe he would rather have things play out in the open and honestly without all the silly legislative maneuvers. Unfortunately for the Governor there are good reasons why these tactics have been used for years – simply put, they work. Even though our process can be a little messy at times, it is better than the alternative from other countries where policy debates often ended in gunfire.

Therefore, at this stage in the legislative session there is a lack of clarity for the budget development in the Legislature. The good news for the environment is that the Governor’s supplemental budget did include $3.6 million more in general fund investments in our key agencies. The Governor also funds an interagency initiative to manage Frac Sand mining. He also creates a new groundwater management initiative through fees on large groundwater users.

Therefore, nothing seems to have been lost in the effort to protect our great outdoors in the fumbled legislative maneuvers of this last week. Also, the good news for the Governor is that there are plenty of additional legislative strategies that can be employed to bring the session to a successful conclusion. He might want to pick up a copy of Jack’s book. Though Governor Dayton’s frankness sometimes can be exasperating to his legislative teammates in the DFL caucus, one has to admit it is a little refreshing.

*Legislative Law and Process in a Nutshell, Jack Davies, West publishing 1986 2nd edition pp. 119-120.

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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