Occupational Licensing

Sign Language Interpreter Licenses and Wisconsin's Other Costly, Pointless Permission Slips

Wisconsin Republicans pledge to reform occupational licensing, which hits residents of the state with nearly $2 billion annually in hidden costs.



If you want to help a deaf person communicate in Wisconsin, you'll have to get permission from the state government first.

Wisconsin is one of a handful of states to require a license for sign language interpreters, and the state also issues licenses for interior designers, bartenders, and dieticians despite no clear evidence that any of those professions constitute a risk to public health in other states without similar licensing rules. Republican lawmakers in Madison say they are set to take a critical look at seemingly pointless government permission slips like those.

"Excessive and unnecessary occupational licensing and regulations can discourage individuals from entering the workforce and attaining financial independence," said a coalition of Wisconsin Republicans in a statement this week announcing their 2017 legislative priorities. The lawmakers said they would review all licensing requirements and pare back those that exceed what other states require while also seeking "to eliminate licenses in Wisconsin that do not provide legitimate public safety benefits."

It's hard to imagine any health and safety benefits to mandatory licensing for sign language interpreters, which is one of eight licenses highlighted in a new report from Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty, a conservative group. The report suggests lawmakers concentrate on repealing or rewriting requirements for eight occupational licenses currently on the books in Wisconsin despite not having any public health or safety benefits: auctioneer, bartender, dietitian, landscape architect, private detective, private security person, sign language interpreter and interior designer.

Wisconsin lawmakers have been adding new licenses to the books for years. Since 1996, the number of licensed professions in the Badger State has grown from 90 to 166—an increase of 84 percent, according to the report. Licensing cost Wisconsin more than 30,000 jobs over the last 20 years and adds an additional $1.9 billion annually in consumer costs.

Though they are usually defended as being in the interest of public health, licensing laws serve as barriers to entry in many professions, protecting incumbent businesses by making it more difficult for competitors to enter the marketplace. In some cases, they are even crafted and enforced by the very businesses they are protecting—with limited evidence of actually protecting health or safety.

Worse, licensing schemes can hurt people who are trying to start or run their own business. The cost—in time and money—required to obtain a license can be daunting and may stop some people from even trying to be entrepreneurs. Others can face stiff fines and penalties if they fail to obtain or renew a license, even if they aren't otherwise jeopardizing their customers or the general public.

"We went through a number of complaints on the Department of Safety and Professional Services website," Collin Roth, a co-author of the report, told Wisconsin Watchdog. "You can find them busting barbers who don't have a license. You can find them busting aestheticians, people who do makeup, for not having a license."

There's already a broad bipartisan consensus that onerous occupational licensing laws are bad for the economy. Conservative and free market groups like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation (which publishes this blog) have been taking for years about the need to reform licensing laws. They're joined by left-of-center groups like the Brookings Institution and the ACLU. Even the Obama White House last year published a report detailing how licensing limits individual opportunity and economic growth.

Reforming licensure could be an opportunity for bipartisan agreement in Madison—and in other states.