Face Heel Turn

North Carolina Lawmakers Move to Tar Interior Designers with Red Tape

Anybody who ever wanted to redecorate a home or office has probably thought about the best criteria for an interior designer. That checklist probably wouldn’t include, “Has special government permission to design the interior of my property”? As it turns out, many North Carolina legislators seem to think it should.

House Bill 590, dubbed the Interior Design Profession Act, passed the North Carolina House of Representatives by a wide margin last week and has been referred to the Rules Committee in the state Senate. The bill, which has bipartisan backing, would implement an ostensibly voluntary registration scheme that would allow the government to license interior designers statewide. Licenses would require applicants to pass the NCIDQ exam from the Council for Interior Design Qualification, which takes six or more expensive years of study. Once granted, licenses must be renewed every two years, and practicing designers would be required to complete 30 units of “continuing education” with each renewal application.

What makes the licensing scheme voluntary is a single sentence near the end of a bill otherwise full of strict mandates, requirements and definitions: “Nothing in this Chapter shall preclude an unregistered interior designer from the practice of interior design.”

But this sentence could be removed in a future “reform,” which would subject unlicensed designers to steep fines and a potential ban from ever getting a license—and block a large segment of the design industry from earning an honest living. Economic cartels sometimes use laws like HB 590 as wolves in sheep’s clothing; the licensing scheme presents a benign exterior upfront—the licensing being optional, for now—only to morph into something more nefarious later, when the opportunity arises. Notably, this dynamic exists even assuming the supporters of HB 590 are acting in good faith. However, even those who pay the exorbitant costs for a government license would also face additional risks. Registered designers who violate any of the new law’s “Disqualifications” provisions approval would face penalties of $1,000 per offense and could lose their licenses.

At best, HB 590 is a convoluted solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist. Only three states and the District of Columbia license interior designers. Other states are not experiencing any problems with the quality of design services for lack of such licensing. At worst, HB 590 is a Trojan horse for more onerous regulation—including a future licensing mandate for all designers. Either way, it’s bad for North Carolina.

According to the Institute for Justice’s (IJ) “Designed to Exclude” report, interior design regulations create serious barriers to entry for entrepreneurs, which in turn discourages many people from offering these services. IJ research found that black and Hispanic Americans, along with those looking to pursue careers in interior design later in life, are disproportionately harmed by such laws. When regulations artificially reduce the supply of interior designers by imposing higher costs on entrepreneurs just to be able to compete, costs predictably rise for consumers. Interior design services cost as much as $7.2 million more for consumers in cities where the practice is regulated. While HB 590 isn’t yet as onerous as regulations elsewhere, it is a clear step in that troubling direction.

HB 590 isn’t North Carolina’s first experience with anticompetitive occupational licensing laws. Just two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners, which is comprised of licensed dentists and oversees the “practice of dentistry” in the state. That case arose when the board attempt to block non-dentists from offering services (mainly tooth whitening) that were considered unwanted competition for licensed dentists. If HB 590 is implemented, yet another licensing board could try to regulate away economic competition for its members.

IJ’s “License to Work” report determined North Carolina to be the 21st most extensively and onerously licensed state. The report also found that government permission slips for interior design are the most onerous professional licensing scheme in America. The Interior Design Profession Act threatens to move the state in the wrong direction and undercut the job growth and healthy economy that hardworking North Carolinians deserve.

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