Sandy Meadows died in 2004, alone and in poverty, because she could not get a license to work as a florist in Louisiana, the only state in the country to have such a nonsensical requirement.
Meadows had been working in a small grocery store, using her self-taught skill at arranging flowers to support herself after her husband passed away. There were no complaints about her performance—no tragic accidents involving rose thorns or excessive pollen—but when agents from the Louisiana Horticultural Commission discovered that she lacked a license, they threatened to shut down the grocery's florist business. With little other choice, Meadows' manager fired her and hired someone who had the proper paperwork.
Meadows was a plaintiff in one of the Institute for Justice's challenges to restrictive occupational licensing laws. Before the case was resolved, though, Meadows' health took a turn for the worse. Unable to earn money to pay her bills or afford rent, she lived out her final days in a sweltering hotel room with no car, no phone, and no electricity. Clark Neily, then an attorney with the institute, says he will never forget the last time he saw Meadows alive. (The lawsuit ended up being mooted after Meadows died and Hurricane Katrina drove the other plaintiffs out of the state.)
Now, 14 years after Meadows died, Louisiana lawmakers might finally eliminate their floral licensing scheme as part of a full-scale overhaul of the state's occupational licensing laws.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, earlier this week called for the passage of a series of bills to lift regulatory burdens on Louisiana workers and businesses. Included in his official legislative agenda for 2018 is HB 561, sponsored by state Rep. Julie Emerson (R-Carencro). It would repeal the licensing requirements for wholesale and retail florists.
"My legislative agenda will help us cut through unnecessary red tape to provide regulatory relief from the overly burdensome system that costs small businesses, military families and professionals valuable time and money," Gov. Edwards said in a statement. "It is time to take a look at the old way we've been doing things and make common sense changes to bring our regulatory laws into the 21st century."
Neily, who is now vice president for criminal justice at the libertarian Cato Institute, applauds Edwards for highlighting the "nakedly anticompetitive" florist license.
Louisiana's licensing requirements are the 6th worst in the nation, according to the Institute for Justice's 2017 report on licensing laws. In addition to being the only state that licenses florists, Louisiana is one of just four states to require interior designers to be licensed and is one of only six states to license tree-trimmers.
Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commission, which oversees the licensing boards for florists, tree-trimmers, and other similar fields, tells the Baton Rouge Advocate that these rules are necessary to protect consumers. Without licensing, he claims, "you're going to set up a situation where anybody can open a floral shop and there's no method to regulate the industry and protect the public.
Protect the public from what? This is the laziest argument possible for denying people the right to pursue the careers of their choosing. If the Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commission is America's only line of defense against the chaos and darkness of unlicensed flower-arranging, then why are 49 other states getting along just fine without people like Strain and the bureaucrats he oversees?
Edwards is aiming to trim more than just the florist license. He has also endorsed a bill sponsored by Emerson and state Sen. Francis Thompson (R-Delhi) that would require a periodic review of the state's licensing laws with the goal of reducing overall licensing burdens and shifting toward less restrictive forms of regulation. The bill would also enshrine "the right of an individual to pursue a lawful occupation" as a fundamental right in the state of Louisiana.
Other bills that earned a place on Edwards' agenda for the year would ease licensing requirements for military families by establishing interstate compacts for licensed nurses, physical therapists, and emergency medical personnel. As Reason has reported, military families face unique difficulties in dealing with state-level licensing requirements, as most states do not honor licenses from elsewhere.
"Relocating somewhere entirely unfamiliar often means finding new jobs, new schools, and months of adjustment to life in a new place," says Edwards. "We see it as our duty to make that transition easier through regulatory relief for those families whose service brings them to Louisiana."
Anyone who moves across state lines can face the same sort of difficulty—indeed, research shows that licensing locks workers in place and prevents them from moving to pursue better opportunites. So interstate compacts should be available to anyone, regardless of whether they are related to someone in the military. Still, it's a good start.
And when it comes to good starts, there's no fruit hanging lower than Louisiana's florist licensing law.