Capital Goods: August 2012

State needs restrictions on licensing 

Last year, a state legislator introduced a proposal to make it a misdemeanor for anyone but a licensed barber to display one of those rotating, red-striped poles. The bill never got a hearing, so we’ll have to imagine what it would have been like when the authorities showed up at the business of a scofflaw who had the audacity to attach one to the premises. BARBER COP: What’s the idea putting up a barber pole without a barbering license? BUSINESS OWNER: Well, it’s an antique, and it is kind of pretty. BARBER COP: Well, how pretty is this? Book him, Dano.

Fortunately, our solons showed the good sense to avoid passing such a law. But they have not shown much restraint when it comes to requiring licenses for any number of occupations. The state requires one to practice 107 trades and professions, overseen by more than 50 licensing boards. A couple of years ago, legislators added hair braiding to the list. Now-retired state Sen. Bill Purcell, a Laurinburg physician, asked, “How can you harm someone by braiding their hair?” His incredulity, though, wasn’t enough to cause him to vote against the bill, which eventually passed by wide margins in the House and Senate. It seems preventing bad-hair days was a pressing need in North Carolina.

Licensing requirements meant that some who had practiced their craft for years had to attend classes, not to mention start paying a license fee. Some, immigrants from Africa, struggled with the classes because of their limited English. Their complaints, however, didn’t prompt any larger review of why the state needs to license everyone from plumbers and massage therapists to auctioneers and social workers. In fact, legislators were back at it this year.

As the session wound down in late June, lawmakers were considering a bill to require licensing landscape contractors and to set up a regulatory board to oversee them. Trimming and tidying hair, trimming and tidying lawns, they’re kind of the same thing. As with the braiders, the argument for licensing landscape contractors was that consumers had been harmed. A license could offer customers some assurances, a regulatory board give them a place to take their complaints.

Critics see these licenses and licensing boards as a protection racket and throwback to medieval guilds, a barrier to entry that keeps some people out of an occupation while allowing others in, a way to stifle competition and prop up prices. The boards, typically appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, are filled with practicing members. Often, they are influenced by the schools providing the education needed to get a license. The training required can be substantial. Cosmetologists, for example, need 1,500 hours of training to be licensed in the state.

Few would argue with oversight of some occupations. But ending up in prison due to a defense by a poorly trained lawyer isn’t the same as being left with a lousy lawn. Proponents of broader occupational licensing argue that, without it, consumers will receive substandard, overpriced services. They also say it protects the reputation of a trade or profession against potentially fraudulent competitors.

Sometimes, though, the damage to a reputation seems to come at the hands of the licensing board itself. Last year, the Department of Transportation’s chief traffic engineer and the state Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors received national ridicule after the engineer, Kevin Lacy, sicced the board on a Raleigh man who had put together his own traffic analysis to counter a DOT ruling regarding the need for traffic lights near his neighborhood. That analysis, Lacy alleged, amounted to the man practicing engineering without a license. More recently, a blogger ran afoul of the state Board of Dietetics and Nutrition for pushing a low-carb, high-protein diet. The board tried to dictate to the blogger what he could and couldn’t say. His response: See you in court. He filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that the board was interfering with his First Amendment rights.

The larger issue for policymakers should be whether more market competition, in some cases, could serve as a better consumer protection than a license and the standards it represents. And when those standards are about how the grass gets cut, the answer ought to be obvious. 

Scott Mooneyham is editor of The Insider, www.ncinsider.com. Email him at smooneyh@ncinsider.com.