Politics & Other Mistakes: Let’s see your license

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My wife has a license to practice law.

My dogs have licenses to practice being dogs.

Thanks to the First Amendment, I don’t need to apply for a license to be a journalist, even if my grammar am lousy and my spelling wurse. I are automatically allowed literary license.

But let’s suppose I wanted to change careers and become, say, a micropigmentation practitioner. I have no idea what that is, but I do know the state of Maine requires anyone doing that job to get an annual license that can cost up to $150.

If I decided to be a funeral attendant, I’d have to train for an entire year (no, stupid, don’t bury that one, he’s still alive) and pay a $300 licensing fee.

Landscape architects need bachelor’s degrees, two years training and $200 licenses to make sure they don’t plant any ugly shrubs.

On the other hand, milk samplers (could I have chocolate this time, please?) need a license, but it’s free.

You could be excused if you concluded Maine’s occupational licensing system is a senseless bureaucratic muddle.

There’s no argument that some professions need regulation to protect the public’s health and safety. It makes sense for medical-care providers, plumbers and hazardous waste transporters to be properly trained and licensed. But sardine packers (50 bucks a year)? Taxidermists ($89 annually)? Nail technologist (a C note every 12 months)?

That’s not about protecting the public. So, what is it about? Matthew Gagnon of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank, believes he knows.

“It’s really held up by a group of people that are trying to protect their own jobs, and stop competition from affecting them,” Gagnon said at a press conference in July. “It’s in their best economic interest to hold out as many economic competitors as possible.”

The center recently issued a deadly dull report called “Let Us Work: Resurrecting Entrepreneurship by Removing Barriers to Economic Opportunity” that claims Maine’s licensing apparatus hurts low-income people and costs the state thousands of jobs. Don’t read this document while driving or operating heavy equipment. (Those dispensing this sort of sleep-inducing verbiage should be subject to the same licensing requirements as pharmacists.)

After being revived (by a licensed professional), I noticed that the report does contain some reasonable arguments for reforming what has become an arbitrary system. Why are log scalers – those are folks who estimate the value of timber – required to have two years of training, while emergency medical technicians need only 26 days of work experience? Why are interior designers licensed at all?

“Bad shag carpeting?” suggested state Sen. Eric Brakey at the press conference. “I mean, the horror to Maine people if that would happen.”

Brakey introduced a bill in the last legislative session that would have studied a couple dozen of the more than 160 licensed professions in the state to see if such regulation was really necessary. The measure went down to defeat due to heavy lobbying by the licensees, who had no interest in anything that might force them to share their occupations with uncouth outsiders.

Of course, there’s a flip side to all this, but it’s buried deep in the report. It turns out restricting the number of people who can engage in a profession boosts the wages of those lucky enough to get a license.

For instance, electrical helpers in Maine earn about $2,500 more per year than those in New Hampshire, where such jobs aren’t regulated. Tank testers and packagers also get a few more dollars here than in the Granite State. Doing away with these rules would depress wages and give employers a nice dividend, which is probably why a right-wing think tank is pushing this agenda.

That doesn’t mean the fundamental concept is faulty. Regulating professions that don’t need regulating is unproductive. The state has occasionally acknowledged that reality by taking tentative steps toward reform. In 2012, the Legislature passed simplified rules for barbers, veterinarians, and contractors doing “incidental” electrical work. More recently, lawmakers decided hair braiders didn’t have to earn a cosmetologist’s license to practice their craft.

But these minor shifts were the exception. In the past decade, Maine has added about 30 new professions to the licensing lists. The trend doesn’t seem to be going in the right direction.

Maybe the bureaucrats who manage this stuff should be required to get a license in common sense.

No need to regulate your outrage when emailing me at aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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