Licensed to Ill

Will Florida Republicans stand up against occupational licensing abuse?


In 1994 Florida became the first state in the union to require interior designers to carry an occupational license from the government. That slip of paper doesn't come cheap. In addition to passing a test, successful applicants must complete six years of expensive educational and professional training, a process that costs thousands of dollars and includes graduating from a Florida-approved interior design program as well as apprenticing under a state-licensed interior designer. Failure to obey the law counts as a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and $1,000 in fines.

It's a classic example of an arbitrary and unnecessary government regulation that does nothing to protect the health, welfare, or safety of either workers or the public. Bad interior design may offend one's aesthetic sensibilities, but it doesn't cause any physical harm. That's a fact even the law's defenders have had to admit. In a joint pretrial stipulation arising from the Institute for Justice's ongoing legal challenge to the Florida licensing law, the state's attorney general's office agreed that "neither the defendants nor the state of Florida have any evidence that the unregulated practice of interior design presents any bona fide public welfare concerns." Furthermore, Florida is one of just three states to require such licenses (Nevada and Louisiana are the others), meaning that unlicensed interior designers currently run wild in 47 states without causing so much as a slight tear in the social fabric. We're not talking about unlicensed brain surgery here.

Thankfully, Florida lawmakers are finally starting to get serious about fixing their 17-year-old mistake. Last month, legislators in the state's House of Representatives introduced a bill that would remove the licensing requirements for 20 occupations, including hair braiders, auctioneers, ballroom dance studio operators, and interior designers. Republican Gov. Rick Scott has thrown his support behind the measure, as has a coalition of small-business groups.

But the Florida Senate is a different story. In comments last week, Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R-Merritt Island) expressed major reservations about the bill, telling the Palm Beach Post, "We're not libertarians. We're Republicans. And we recognize the role for government."

Again, this isn't brain surgery. Nobody is asking Haridopolos to eliminate all occupational licensing; the point is simply to remove wasteful red tape that prevents otherwise law-abiding Floridians from pursuing a handful of otherwise viable job opportunities.

But let's say Haridopolos is correct and that there is a legitimate role for the government in licensing harmless jobs like hair braiding and interior design. Is there any part of the economy where there isn't a role for the state?

Such comments are doubly unfortunate coming from a figure like Haridopolos, who in addition to his senior role in the Florida GOP, where he can shepherd the bill to passage, is also running a Tea Party-style campaign for the U.S. Senate under the slogan "Freedom First." Among the pledges on his campaign website is this love letter to the free market: "I promise to speak out for ideas that can revitalize our economy by empowering individuals, not governments, and by preserving opportunity for families and innovators, and not power for bureaucrats and politicians."

Nice words. So why not empower individuals and help revitalize the economy in Florida by freeing up 20 lines of work from costly and unnecessary occupational licensing requirements? If Haridopolos isn't willing to use his leadership role in the Florida Senate to push this modest deregulatory bill forward, it's hard to believe he'll do much better on the national stage.

As the licensing reform bill works its way through legislative conference committee this week, let's hope Haridopolos changes his tune and pushes his GOP allies to actually put freedom first.

Damon W. Root is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

Bonus Reason.tv video: "Throw-Pillow Fight: Is your interior designer really putting your life at risk?"