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"Does it hurt?" the committee chairwoman, Sen. Sandra Pappas, asked the bill sponsor of the subject of his legislation.
"Just a little bit," Sen. James Metzen replied less than confidently.
The topic before the Senate State and Local Government Committee was hair-threading. Clearly, neither Pappas nor Metzen, who said his only similar experience was having old hockey wounds stitched, was conversant with the ancient hair-removal practice.
But their committee, both bodies of the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton unanimously agreed that practitioners should not be subject to licensing and training rules as cosmetologists. This common-sense decision, finalized by a 63-0 Senate vote on Tuesday and Dayton's signature on Friday, was both an exemplar of the "unsession" and another small victory for a determined public interest law firm guided by the principles of the free market.
So, what the heck were they talking about?
As even the bill sponsors had to learn, hair-threading is a beauty technique, a way of gently coaxing unwanted hair from eyebrows and other areas by using cotton thread that the practitioner holds in a kind of cat's cradle. Practitioners, of whom there are about a dozen in shops and kiosks in the Twin Cities, say it a 1,000-year-old practice from India and the Middle East that is less painful and intrusive than other hair-removal methods.
But is it cosmetology, and does it require the requisite training, health and safety rules, and licensing and inspections?
That question put the hair-threaders into the orbit of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest firm that challenges occupational licensing as a barrier to free entry into the marketplace. The Minnesota branch has advocated and litigated for hair-braiders, taxi drivers and equine dentists, among others, and its Minnesota executive director, Lee McGrath, appeared at the Legislature on behalf of the threaders.
The threading victory is a small step in the institute's attempt to challenge all such licensing schemes, McGrath said.
"We do this in part because it is a vehicle to show that occupational licensing is not needed," he said. "The marketplace does a much better job of regulating professionals and protecting consumers. This is best shown in nontraditional services that immigrants and others perform."
McGrath first took his case to the state's Board of Cosmetologist Examiners, which agreed with McGrath that the threaders would remain unregulated. This year's bill gives that position the force of state law.
Not all states have resolved the issue as amicably.
In Texas, where the state has sought to require licensing for threading practitioners, the Institute for Justice is involved in a court battle that has reached the state Supreme Court.
The courts have so far sided with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, which says threaders need to be licensed because the practice falls under the definition of cosmetology. The threaders have argued that the state's action violates their right "to earn an honest living in the occupation of one's choice, free from unreasonable governmental interference."
McGrath says Minnesota's resolution is perfect for this year's "unsession," which has a focus on weeding out unnecessary laws and regulations.
"Licensing does more for licensees than it does for consumers," McGrath said. "It creates barriers to entry … it raises prices. It rewards the licensees."
But in Minnesota, at least, the inspectors will keep their hands off the hair-threaders.