This fall, a story broke that has reminded me of the long history and complexities involving the state government’s regulation of businesses and professions.
The story, by my colleague Kurt Erickson at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, uncovered a state administration proposal to merge some environmental protection agencies.
Environmental regulation has a long history of business complaints about costs and time-consuming processes versus arguments by environmentalists and consumer protection advocates about the public benefits from government oversight. Many years ago, the legislature expanded the state's environmental regulatory rules to enforce federal requirements. Proponents argued state agencies would be more responsive and swifter to act than the feds in dealing with Missouri businesses.
This environmental controversy is just one part of a much broader debate about state regulation of businesses and professions that has been ongoing for decades.
For some professions, state regulation has an obvious public health and safety purpose, such as medical and engineering professions.
Consumer advocates have complained, however, that these boards are dominated by the professions they regulate, making them reluctant to expose or discipline misconduct by members of their own professions. In response, the legislature added an independent member who is not part of the board's profession. But the professions still dominate the memberships of licensing boards.
For some professions, there is not always an obvious public safety issue.
For example, there's a board that licenses and regulates professional landscape architects and another for professional interior designers. Reading these requirements, I've wondered whether choosing wall colors or where to place garden plants is just a matter of personal taste that was not the government's business.
It's no secret in the statehouse that some laws regulating who can practice under the name of a profession are driven by the professions themselves. Licensing reduces competition and also benefits private, for-profit schools that offer the courses required for licenses.
Years ago, former Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, promptly asked to be removed from the House Professional Registration and Licensing Committee in his first year after he learned about an aspect of the assignment. Some called the committee a "rain maker" for its ability to generate campaign contributions to members from the professions affected by bills assigned to the committee.
In recent years, yet another complexity has been added to this issue — one involving race.
Missouri law regulates and licenses barbers. For more than a decade, some Black Caucus legislators have sought to exempt or ease requirements for hair braiders. It's raised the question about the public safety benefits of licensing those who cut hair, since so many of us now cut our own hair. But a legislative supporter of barber licensing once told me there are health issues such as identification and dealing with scalp diseases.
Debate over which professions should be regulated by government is a national issue that has been going on in state legislatures for years.
In Missouri, term limits are a factor in this national debate.
With a legislature composed of members with less experience in crafting bills, there's been a trend to pass laws giving agencies broad rule-making powers to define and enforce the legislation. If the goal is to reduce regulations imposed on Missourians by unelected bureaucrats, one could argue that repealing term limits might bring back legislature members with the expertise to incorporate those rules into the laws they pass.
The legislature does have power to repeal administrative rules. But, with term limits, I've sensed that lawmakers no longer fully understand the breadth of their oversight authority and how to effectively exercise those powers.
This history suggests a complicated and fascinating debate if Gov. Eric Greitens again brings before the Missouri legislature next year his efforts to streamline administrative rule-making.
Phill Brooks is director of the Missouri School of Journalism’s State Government Reporting Program. He has been a statehouse reporter since 1970, making him the dean of the Missouri statehouse press corps, and he manages the multimedia website on state government news, MDN.org. Brooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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