When you think of Oklahoma, the first thing that comes to mind is probably something along the lines of cowboys, pioneer women, tornadoes or the gridiron giants of the University of Oklahoma Sooners. You probably don’t think, “11th most burdensome licensing laws for low-to-moderate income occupations,” which the Institute for Justice (IJ) has found. Yet that’s the grim economic reality facing too many Oklahomans who are trying to earn an honest living. But things soon could change.
Last winter, Gov. Mary Fallin issued an executive order creating the Occupational Licensing Task Force chaired by Labor Commissioner Melissa McLawhorn Houston. The task force was to determine whether existing regulations make sense or if less restrictive regulations— like registration, regular inspections or voluntary certification—would maximize both opportunities for workers and consumer protection. In August, task force officials announced a blueprint for new licensing regulations, and last week, the task force held a public meeting that led to a lively panel discussion about the vital need for reforms that would enhance economic liberty.
Panel participant Paul Avelar, an IJ Senior Attorney, was cautiously hopeful about the growing bipartisan support for lowering overall regulatory burdens on Oklahoma’s business owners and entrepreneurs. “There seems to be strong bipartisan agreement on reducing ‘marginal’ licensing and onerous red tape that particularly harms military families and ex-convicts,” he said afterward. “But it won’t be easy. Reformers are up against entrenched special-interests that benefit from these regulations that undermine economic growth by stifling healthy competition.”
According to IJ’s extensive “License to Work” report, Oklahoma has substantial room for improvement in its regulatory climate. The Sooner State’s licensing laws, which are more onerous than 39 other states, require an average of $116 in fees, more than a year (416 days) of training and two exams. This is well above the already high national average. For example, aspiring social and human service assistants in Oklahoma spend six years on education and experience—two more years than even the closest states in an occupation where 44 states do not require a license at all. Oklahoma is also one of only four states to require school sports coaches to be licensed teachers, meaning they must obtain an expensive four-year college degree. The national average for coach training is just 254 days—about the calendar length of a school year.
Oklahoma has a prime opportunity to lead the nation on this issue of economic liberty reform. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 landmark decision in FTC v. North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners, then-Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt established a legal review process, under an executive order, to determine if and how members of state boards collude to exclude new business competitors. Now, Commissioner Houston aims to use the Occupational Licensing Task Force to build on Pruitt’s initiative to ensure Oklahoma’s labor markets are open and fair. At the heart of its work is acknowledging that technology is providing consumers with information about service providers that make current regulations increasingly anachronistic. The task force’s recommendations are due to the governor in December.
State lawmakers shouldn’t wait. They should move to exempt service providers at the margins. Beyond school coaches and human service assistants, current licensing laws impose economically crushing burdens on natural hair braiders, makeup artists, teeth whiteners, casket sellers, social work associates and many other occupations where onerous regulations do not serve any compelling public interest. Reducing unnecessary occupational licenses would empower ordinary Sooners to pursue the American Dream and grow Oklahoma’s economy.