GOP leadership must act on economic freedom bills

By CJ Szafir and Collin Roth

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker recently signed two bills into law that free workers from red tape in order to obtain a cosmetology and barber license. We applauded him and the legislators for their efforts. 

Since 1996, the number of license types in Wisconsin have grown by 84 percent, affecting more than 440,000 current license holders. This growth has resulted in lower employment, hindered opportunity, and added costs to the economy.

Wisconsin’s license fees and training requirements above the national average make it harder to become a cosmetologist in Wisconsin than in dozens of other states. So going forward, it will be a little bit easier to obtain a license from the government to cut hair – something we can agree on has a loose relationship with public safety. No question, this is a step in the right direction.   

But that’s exactly what it is. A step in the right direction. Moving the ball down the field. A first down.

If Wisconsin is going to be the land of opportunity and prosperity for all – and truly make the state open for jobs at all income levels – then it needs a complete overhaul of how licensing red tape serves to hurt workers in hundreds of different professions.  Consider the following:

  • Wisconsin ranks as the fifth most burdensome state in the country for licensing requirements.   
  • Regulation in Wisconsin exceeded the national average for EMTs, aestheticians, veterinary technicians, and cosmetologists.
  • Wisconsin could gain 7 percent employment growth in ten different professions just by cutting red tape licensing requirements to those of Hawaii (clearly not a “dangerous” state).  
  • In total, licensing is estimated to cost the Badger State 31,634 fewer jobs and approximately $1.93 billion per year in higher consumer costs.

In November 2016, we wrote that states all over the country were undergoing serious reforms to make it easier to earn a living. With that momentum, Wisconsin was at risk of being left behind as being a state of opportunity and promise. 

A year later, there are two bills in the legislature that could vault Wisconsin to the forefront of nationwide reforms, freeing our workers from red tape. One would create an Occupational License Review Council to  review all existing licensing rules and regulations to make recommendations on how to make the system better for workers. It would also include a regulatory process to make it harder to adopt new requirements (i.e. sunrise review). Another bill would take the government out of the licensing business for certain professions by recognizing private credentials and certifications. While small on scale, a reform like this could act as a pilot for the future of occupational regulation.    

The same principles that helped the cosmetology bill become law – cutting red tape, making it easier to earn a living, economic freedom – should also apply to these two bills.       

But, these bills, for reasons unknown, are being held up in the legislature. The Review Council bill (SB 288 / AB 369) and Self-Certification bill (SB 296 / AB 370) were passed out of committee in the Senate but have yet to be scheduled for a full floor vote. The situation is more concerning in the Assembly, where the bills have not been voted on in committee.

America has always been rooted in the idea of economic freedom; it’s in our DNA. As Americans, we believe that hard work and determination will reap rewards. We tell our children, rich or poor, that with the right attitude they can grow up to be anything they want in this world. What we don’t tell our children, and we often fail to consider, is that government will often erect barriers to opportunity. That is exactly what has happened in Wisconsin over the years.

To their credit, Walker, his state Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS), and a handful of conservative legislators have shown leadership in pushing this issue further. Walker’s DSPS applied for – and was accepted into – the National Occupational Licensing Learning Consortium, a year-long project to explore ways to further reduce unnecessary barriers to the labor market.

But with the two bills mentioned above, reform can happen right now.    

So what does Republican legislative leadership want: a first down or touchdown?

CJ Szafir, vice president for policy, Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL)

Collin Roth, research fellow, WILL

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