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The 7 Most Insane Licensing Proposals of 2019 (So Far)

State lawmakers target pet groomers, drain cleaners, interior designers, pecan buyers, athletic trainers, antler dealers, and....art therapists?

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Rebecca Nelson Image Source/Newscom

The new year brought the opening of many state legislative sessions, and the opening of state legislative sessions has brought a predictable but disappointing flurry of new licensing proposals.

Today, nearly 30 percent of American workers need a license to do their jobs, up from just 5 percent in the 1950s. The majority of that growth, as the White House noted in a 2016 report on licensure, comes "from an increase in the number of professions that require a license rather than composition in the workforce."

Some states seem to have gotten wise to the economic problems that excessive licensing can cause—one study has found that licensing laws across all 50 states resulted in 2.85 million fewer jobs and cost consumers more than $200 billion annually. As Reason detailed last week, the governors of Ohio and Idaho took action in early 2019 to join three other states—Louisiana, Nebraska, and Oklahoma—in approving important reforms that curtail the power of licensing boards and increase economic freedom.

Unfortunately, many state lawmakers seem determined to continue the expansion of occupational licensing into professions where there is little public health or safety justification for these barriers to employment.

"We know occupational licensing reduces consumer choice, increases prices, and keeps people out of jobs. It also criminalizes innocent behavior," says Shoshana Weissman, digital media director and policy fellow at the R Street Institute, which tracks these and other state legislative proposals, and advocates for licensing reforms. "Are we willing to fine people or throw them in jail for practicing interior design or being a health coach without a license? This is insanity and it hurts real people."

Insanity, indeed. Here are the five worst occupational licensing proposals of 2019—so far.

Pet Groomers (New Jersey and New York)

Two states are proposing new regulations for anyone who makes money by bathing, brushing, clipping, or styling a pet, and New Jersey's proposal is a particularly good example of how bad licensing laws get on the books.

The bill offered by three members of the state assembly would create a new licensing board—the New Jersey State Board of Pet Groomers—consisting of three members of the public, three pet groomers, two veterinarians, and one governor-appointee. The bill, as currently written, would delegate pretty much all rulemaking authority to the newly created board. The board would get to set qualification requirements, including a written and practical test that applicants would have to pass, and would determine licensing fees as well as fines for unlicensed pet grooming. The board would also be empowered to investigate and even shut down pet groomers that it determined were not meeting the board's standards.

All of that might sound fine—no one wants their pet to get a bad haircut—but those types of provisions are the makings of an anti-competitive cartel. The groomers and veterinarians on the board have an incentive to limit competition and control a majority of the votes. By proposing to delegate so much authority to the board, the state lawmakers have effectively eliminated their own role in the lawmaking process—and are effectively allowing the board to do whatever it wants.

That's not just unwise, it might also run afoul of a 2014 Supreme Court ruling that requires state lawmakers to actively supervise licensing boards.

Pecan Buyers (Texas)

Should it be a crime to buy nuts without a government-issued permission slip? At least one state lawmaker in Texas (Rep. Mary González) thinks so. Her bill would require anyone "engaged in the business of purchasing in-shell pecans from a pecan producer" to be licensed by the state—though grocery stores would be exempted.

Getting the license would require the payment of a fee of $400 and showing government-issued identification. What's really pernicious about González' proposal, though, is the record-keeping requirement imposed on those licensed pecan buyers. Licensed pecan buyers would have to maintain up-to-date records of all purchases, including the date and location of the transaction, the license plate number of the seller's vehicle (along with the make and model), and the address "or physical location of the tree" where the pecans originated.

Failure to keep those records accurately would trigger a $250 fine, and each violation could be another fine. Assuming that pecan buyers in Texas are probably buying thousands if not millions of pecans every month, well, those fines could add up fast.

Athletic Trainers (West Virginia)

Despite living in one of America's least healthy states, three state lawmakers in West Virginia have decided that what their state really needs is fewer personal trainers.

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the need for a license like this, of course, but the bill also highlights another problem with licensing laws in general. Buried way down on the 14th page of the proposal is a clause that would allow the state board of physical therapy (which would be given power over athletic trainers) to block applicants who have committed a "felony or other crime involving moral turpitude" along with anyone who is judged to be "guilty of unprofessional conduct" as determined by the board itself.

As we've covered at Reason on many occasions, banning individuals with criminal records from getting licenses is bad policy. It continues to punish someone long after they've paid their debt to society, it decreases employment, and it increases recidivism—because the best predictor of whether someone will commit another crime after getting out of prison is whether they have a job or not. The use of deliberately vague language ("moral turpitude" and "unprofessional conduct") gives the state board even greater authority to block would-be personal trainers from getting licensed.

Antler Dealers (Nevada)

A full legislative committee in the Nevada Assembly has teamed up to introduce a bill on behalf of the state Department of Wildlife to create a new licensing category for people who sell or trade antlers. The bill would make it a crime to "engage in the business of buying, selling, trading or dealing in certain antlers or any head or skull of a big game mammal without first obtaining an antler dealer's license," though the proposal does not include any details for how violators would be punished.

There's no testing or mandatory training requirements included in the bill—a would-be antler dealer only has to sign up with the Department of Wildlife and pay a fee—making this the least bad form of licensing. Still, it would likely restrict the ability of non-Nevada residents to sell antlers in Nevada, and…do we really need a license for selling antlers in the first place?

Art Therapists, Drain Cleaners, and Interior Designers (Massachusetts)

Yes, these are all serious proposals.

Sen. Diana DiZoglio (D-First Essex) wants to license practitioners of art therapy, which is "a mental health discipline that integrates use of psychotherapeutic principles, art media, and the creative process." That sounds like it might help some people cope with stress or more severe mental disorders, but it also really doesn't sound like something that needs a permission slip from the government.

Meanwhile, Sen. Barry Finegold (D-Middlesex) has a bill to license drain cleaners under the auspices of the Board of Examiners of Plumbers—which really sounds like it should be abolished, rather than expanded—and to impose unspecified civil penalties against anyone who dares to make money by cleaning a drain without the state board's permission.

And Sen. Joan Lovely (D-Second Essex) is proposing to make Massachusetts the fourth state to adopt licensing for interior designers, presumably to protect her constituents from the dangers of mismatched drapes and ugly throw pillows. The proposal would create a new board to regulate interior designers, and the bill specifies that four of the five members of the board must be "engaged in the practice of interior design." I'm sure they can be trusted to write rules that don't restrict their own competitors.