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Professional licensing due a state review

Too many rules limit jobs, lift costs, say Capitol critics by Michael R. Wickline | June 3, 2019 at 2:09 a.m. | Updated June 3, 2019 at 2:09 a.m.

The Legislature decided this year the time had come to review how the state licenses professions, and this decision was made in the aftermath of a national report critical of how occupational licensing is done in Arkansas.

During this year's regular session, the Legislature authorized a comprehensive review of the state's various occupational licenses, certificates, registrations, permits and other forms of authorization.

The review will be conducted by the Legislative Council, the body of lawmakers that meets between legislative sessions. The council recently created a subcommittee to conduct this review.

Occupational licenses are required for certain vocations, such as medical professionals, plumbers and cosmetologists, with the intent of protecting consumers. But critics say some licensing requirements are overburdensome, protect incumbents and drive up the cost of services.

The Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice concluded in a November 2017 report that Arkansas ranked as "the third most broadly and erroneously licensed" state in the nation because it licenses so many occupations so onerously.

[RELATED: Complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature]

The group said Arkansas licensed 72 of 102 occupations studied by the group, and the state's licensing laws rank as the sixth-most burdensome because of high-average education and experience requirements.

"We call ourselves a right-to-work state, but we are one of the hardest states in the United States to go to work," said Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs.

He said he hopes legislative review of occupational licenses and other forms of authorization will lead to fewer licensed professions or a reduction in the time it takes to get licensed.

"The thought was, 'Let's review this and do it in depth,'" said Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis.

"I am not going in with any expectation that everything is fine or to do away with a lot of occupational licenses," Ingram said. "I think everybody wants to do the common-sense thing."

This year, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson enacted Act 600 to require the Legislative Council to conduct a review of occupational licenses and other authorizations and the entities that issue them.

Act 600 is the Red Tape Reduction Sunrise and Sunset Act of 2019.

"It is the intent of the General Assembly to determine and implement the least restrictive form of occupational authorization to protect consumers from significant and substantiated harm to public health and safety," according to Act 600.

The bill that became Act 600 was sponsored by Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs. The bill zipped through the House in a 92-0 vote and the Senate in a 35-0 vote in March.

According to Act 600, the Red Tape Reduction Working Group that Hutchinson appointed in February 2018 recommended last fall a systematic process for reviewing the occupational authorization process and the entities that handle it.

Cozart said he favored requiring legislative review rather than by a commission appointed by the governor because lawmakers would have "no control" over the commission, which would do "what the governor wants it to do." He added that he isn't suggesting that's what Hutchinson would have done with such a commission.

A legislative review will benefit from lawmakers' views from across the state, he said.

The goal for the Legislative Council's newly formed Occupational Licensing Review Subcommittee "is to analyze and ensure that consumers are protected in interactions with occupational licensees while at the same time reviewing the regulations and steps that licensees must comply with," said a subcommittee co-chairman, Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View.

The subcommittee will look at whether these entities are overregulated, the impact on the economic prosperity of the state, and the creation of labor market opportunities for Arkansans, said Irvin.

"There are about 97 entities that do occupational licenses [and the subcommittee] will have to divide those into six groups and begin a rotating review of all of those licenses [over a six-year period]," Jill Thayer of the Bureau of Legislative Research told the Legislative Council's Executive Subcommittee in a recent meeting.

The Occupational Licensing Review Subcommittee "will have a set of rules for procedures of doing that," said Thayer, who is legal counsel to Bureau of Legislative Research Director Marty Garrity.

Act 600 also allows any occupational authorization or occupational entity to be reviewed out of the rotating basis, if a member of the General Assembly makes a formal request to the Legislative Council and the council's co-chairmen approve the requests. The co-chairmen are Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, and Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage.

The subcommittee's other co-chairman, Rep. Richard Womack, R-Arkadelphia, said Friday that the subcommittee's goal isn't to reduce the number of licensed occupations.

Instead, the goal is "to reduce rules and regulations that might be a bit of an overreach," he said. "Hopefully, we strike a better balance without interfering with the free market too much."

"I hope we are going to look at the rules and regulations and remove those that have nothing to do with health and safety," said Womack.

The subcommittee will make recommendations to the Legislative Council on any changes in state law and rules.

Act 600 will allow the Legislative Council to contract with consultants to assist with the review.

Besides appointing Womack as the subcommittee's House co-chairman, Wardlaw appointed Reps. John Payton, R-Wilbur; LeAnne Burch, D-Monticello; Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna; David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville; Marcus Richmond, R-Harvey; Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro, and Cozart, according to Wardlaw's letter dated Friday to House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado.

Besides appointing Irvin as the subcommittee's Senate co-chairman, Bledsoe has appointed Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs; Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy; Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, Will Bond, D-Little Rock; Eddie Cheatham, D-Crossett; Breanne Davis, R-Russellville; and Ingram to the subcommittee.

Alexander Kanode, a policy analyst with the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics at the University of Central Arkansas, said Act 600 "is a great first step toward improving the lives of working Arkansans."

The newly created Occupational Licensing Review Subcommittee "is just a review process," he said. "It will require vigilance by members of the subcommittee to ensure that it leads to meaningful reform."

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