In some ways, 2017 felt like a breakthrough year for reforming state licensing laws.
Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta issued a call for state lawmakers to evaluate licensing laws and fix those that restricted employment without doing much to benefit public health and safety.
Maureen Ohlhausen, acting chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, created a new economic freedom task force to advise state policymakers about which licensing laws might violate federal antitrust laws by unfairly restricting competition and erecting barriers to entry for workers and entrepreneurs.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced a bill that would build on the FTC's previous licensing work by encouraging states to reform unfair licensing laws in exchange for immunity from antitrust lawsuits.
Lawmakers in Mississippi passed one of the most important licensing reforms in the country, a model for other states to follow. A bipartisan group of governors in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and elsewhere called for thorough reviews of state licensing laws aimed at identifying those that needlessly burden workers without protecting the public.
Academic research into the consequences of licensing laws—something that did not get much study until recently—came into sharper focus. Licensing creates burdens for all workers, but it's particularly harmful for those who are already facing a tough hand. Immigrants, the formerly incarcerated, and those without college degrees are unduly harmed. Licensed workers are less likely to move from one place to another in pursuit of better opportunities. Even military veterans and their families can't escape the scourge of licensing.
Still, there were more licensing laws run amuck this past year than you can shake a cease-and-desist order at. Here's some of the best (actually, the worst) licensing stories we covered this year:
5. Maryland Decriminalizes Barbering Without a License; Increases Fines for Barbering Without a License
The good news is that Maryland will no longer throw people in jail for the crime of cutting hair without a government-issued permission slip. The bad news is the government can still fine you—up to $1,000 and up from a previous limit of $100.
A pretty mixed bag, as licensing reforms go. The changes unanimously passed the state legislature in April and were signed by Gov. Larry Hogan. The new law eliminates a provision that allowed unlicensed barbers to be tossed in jail for up to 30 days. For the sake of comparison, first-time DUI offenses come with just 48 hours of prison time under Maryland law.
4. Florida Threatens Woman With Jail Time for Giving Diet Tips
An agent from the Florida Department of Health posed as a potential client to catch Heather Kokesch Del Castillo in the act of—gasp!—giving diet advice without a license.
After thwarting her insidious effort to help people, the state slapped Del Castillo with a $750 fine. She faces misdemeanor charges if she doesn't keep her mouth shut, with further fines of up to $1,000 for each incident and possibly even a year in prison.
The Institute for Justice, a national libertarian law firm that frequently challenges licensing laws, is now representing Del Castillo in a lawsuit against the state Department of Health. According to the lawsuit, it was a competitor that snitched to the state about Del Castillo's diet consulting service, which is about par for the course. Licensing laws aren't really about protecting the public from bad service-providers, so much as they are about protecting other service-providers from unwanted competition.
3. Touch a Horse, Go Directly to Jail
Laurie Wheeler had studied equine massage therapy since 2010 and had plied her trade with some of the top competitive horses in her native state of Tennessee. But earlier this year, she was told by the state Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners that she could be arrested and sent to jail if she touched a horse without a license.
The board insisted only a licensed veterinarian with years of schooling—none of which would focus on the specific equine massage skills that Wheeler already possessed—could do that. "I would have to go to veterinary school, and how crazy is that? I wouldn't learn anything about massaging there, because it's not in the curriculum," she told Reason in February.
After our story, state lawmakers concocted a temporary fix and told the state board to keep its hands off Wheeler and other Tennessee-based horse masseuses. The state legislature will have to revisit the issue next year to make the reforms permanent. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Arizona took similar steps after that state's veterinary board went after a trio of women for massaging horses without being veterinarians—essentially the same thing as saying that someone offering massage therapy to humans should have to be a fully credentialed medical doctor.
2. Haircuts for the Homeless Land Arizona Barber Student in Hot Water
Arizona State Board of Cosmetology launched an investigation into Juan Carlos Montesdeoca after anonymous complaints that he was cutting hair without a license. According to the complaint, first reported by Tucson News Now in mid-February, Montesdeoca was "requesting local businesses and local stylists to help out with free haircuts (unlicensed individuals) to the homeless."
After the story went viral, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey gave the board's leaders a stern talking-to, telling them to drop the "outrageous" investigation into Montesdeoca. "Our job as public servants is to support Arizonans in their efforts to better their own lives—and certainly in their efforts to improve the lives of others," Ducey, a Republican, wrote. "Any actions by your board on this issue, outside of applauding Mr. Montesdeoca's efforts, are unnecessary and uncalled for."
Later in the year, the "public servants" at the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology got busted by a state audit for using public money to purchase holiday gifts, meals, and unnecessary hotel stays. So you know they have their priorities in order.
1. Oregon Engineering Board Says Doing Math Without a License is Illegal
It's a story that really has to be seen to be believed. Mats Järlström was trying to challenge a ticket that his wife received from a red light camera in Beaverton, Oregon, in 2014. Using his skills as a trained electrical engineer, he made a presentation to the city council showing that the timing of the red lights and cameras was wrong. Then he got a letter from the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying, telling Järlström he could "create violations" even calling himself an "electronics engineer" or using the phrase "I am an engineer" in his letter. They also slapped him with a $500 fine.
Järlström, with the help of the Institute for Justice, challenged the board on First Amendment grounds. Earlier this month, the board admitted they don't have the right to tell him what he can and cannot say.
The Oregon board might be the most aggressive licensing board in the nation. Järlström's story is crazy, but it's not the first time the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying has been overly aggressive about enforcing their rules for who is and who is not an engineer.
It's investigated politicians for talking about their backgrounds in engineering on multiple occasions, while also targeting local activists who offered public comments about the potential noise from a new power plant, and even once went after a magazine for describing someone as "an engineer" when they were not licensed by the state as one.