Professional boards should not stand for protectionism

By WYATT EMMERICH,

There is a nationwide trend to roll back professional licensing requirements and Mississippi is leading the charge.

Backed by the National Institute for Justice, the Mississippi Center for Public Policy and the Mississippi chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Occupational Board Compliance Act, passed last year, will rein in Mississippi’s sprawling administrative bureaucracies.

The new legislation creates an “Occupational Licensing Review Commission” to actively supervise the 200 Mississippi licensing boards. Any new regulations must first be reviewed by the commission, which could approve, veto or modify them. The new law states Mississippi’s policy is to “increase economic opportunities…by promoting competition.” New occupational regulations “must use the least restrictive regulation necessary to protect consumers.”

Right after the act was created, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial commending Mississippi for its progressive action.

 Two hundred boards, agencies and commissions reign in Mississippi. Sixty percent of all money spent by the state is controlled by these non-elected entities. It is an example of the rapid growth of the administrative state over the last few decades.

Nearly one-third of Mississippi’s workforce is licensed or certified by various state boards. Numerous think tank studies are questioning whether these regulations really help society. In many cases, they create anti-competitive hurdles that stifle competition.

A perfect example of this occurred in Tupelo where Melony Armstrong wanted to open her own natural hair braiding business. Mississippi’s cosmetology licensing board first required her to complete 300 hours of coursework to get a license in “wigology.” Then she was required to take 3,200 hours of classes to teach her natural braiding techniques, which, unlike cosmetology, don’t use harsh chemicals or dyes.

The National Institute for Justice took up her cause. Melony filed a lawsuit against the board for infringing her right to economic liberty. In response, Gov. Phil Bryant signed a law to exempt braiding from the state’s cosmetology laws. Braiders now only need to pay a $25 registration fee and take a common-sense self-test on health and sanitation. Freed from useless government barriers, Melony has taught 125 people how to braid hair, while more than 2,600 braiders have registered.

Unfortunately, licensing laws still prevent far too many Mississippians from earning an honest living. A nationwide study by the Institute for Justice looked at 102 low- and middle-income occupations that are licensed in at least one state. Mississippi requires licenses for 55 of those occupations, more than 45 other states. Those licenses, on average, force Mississippians to finish 155 days of coursework and pass two exams.

A Forbes magazine article on the subject states, “Mississippi now has a chance to become a national leader for licensing reform. The Occupational Board Compliance Act will free markets, limit government, reduce litigation and boost entrepreneurship across the state.”

A local example of the licensing boards protecting their profession from competition is playing out locally. A Madison company, Vizaline, owned by Brent Melton and his partners, is fighting the Mississippi Board of Licensure for Professional Engineering and Surveyors.

Melton, a retired banker, realized that bankers needed a quick, simple graphic depiction of property locations when making loans.

 

Surveyors’ descriptionS are often counter-intuitive and hard to visualize. So Melton’s company takes the legal description of the property, on file at the county courthouse, and super-imposes it over a GPS-based map.

The surveyors board believed this was an encroachment on their professional territory. They contacted Melton, who agreed with their request to put a disclaimer that he was not a professional surveyor. He thought everything was good, but a year later, without any further discussion, the surveyors board filed suit.

“Melton has engaged, and continues to engage in the practice of surveying while not being licensed by the board,” the board's complaint states.

Special Assistant Attorney General James Bobo, representing the state, said in court papers: "The defendants should be required to disgorge themselves, jointly or individually, of all fees and compensation which they, jointly or individually, have collected for services which constitutes the practice of surveying within the state of Mississippi."

The board alleges the company provides plats that are normally the practice of surveying and the defendants hold their professional service out as the equivalent of a professional surveying service.

Melton and his company filed a counter-claim against members of the board. The National Institute of Justice joined the company to file the First Amendment counter-lawsuit.

“What really bothers me is that I’m from Mississippi,” Melton said. “I went to school in Mississippi. I went to college here and so did my partner. I retired from banking, and I felt like this was something that would help my fellow bankers. I saw we all needed this in our lending. There wasn’t a solution to it. So I sought to find a solution and by that create jobs in Mississippi and maybe grow this thing until we had a really nice company in Mississippi, paying Mississippi taxes.

“And then, we have a board like this that through monopolistic efforts really affects Mississippi growing. It bothers me for other entrepreneurs wanting to achieve something like this and use their knowledge to develop other things in Mississippi. That’s one of the more aggravating things about this.”

Technology is changing the nature of traditional surveying. Indeed, there is a new category of engineer called the geo-spatial engineer which has the potential of making the traditional profession of surveying obsolete. Rapid advances in technology alter lives and professions. Look at Uber and taxicabs. As a state, it would be better to accept new technology rather than try to stop the wave of change.

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