Potentially more important than lessons for strong sunrise reviews, our study offers lessons for licensing policy more broadly, even—perhaps especially—in states without a sunrise process. Prior licensing research has examined the effects of individual licenses, the extent of licensing and its economic costs, and the types of requirements imposed. However, no prior research has compiled such a large collection of government reports trying to determine whether specific licensing proposals are sound policy. Our 30-plus years of sunrise review data can tell policymakers a great deal about how licensing really works.
First, our findings validate prior research showing occupational regulations are overwhelmingly driven by occupational insiders, not consumers or consumer watchdogs. 1 These groups often pursue licensure in multiple states, and if at first they do not succeed, frequently they will try again. The industry campaign by the United States Lactation Consultant Association that led Georgia to enact the nation’s strictest lactation consultant license was no aberration. In fact, it was typical of industry requests for regulation, which often pay lip service to health and safety but which sunrise reviewers may recognize as truly motivated by a desire to fence out competitors and increase an occupation’s visibility, prestige or profitability.
Second, even if one assumes good faith on the part of those who request licensure, our data show most license proposals fall apart under sunrise scrutiny, just as the USLCA’s did before the Georgia Occupational Regulation Review Council. Independent analyses by government agencies across a wide array of occupations overwhelmingly recommend against licensure, and many recommend no new regulation at all. Typically, these reviews find purported harms are unsubstantiated, the costs of licensure are likely to outweigh potential benefits or licensure is ill suited to address any legitimate concerns—and sometimes they conclude all the above. This is true for health and non-health occupations alike, and the breadth and consistency of these findings suggest that quite often licensing is not the right answer.
Third, our findings underscore the ongoing influence of special interests in licensing policy. Despite independent reviews recommending against it, legislatures can be swayed to license occupations anyway, as Georgia’s was in enacting a license that matched the USLCA’s certification requirements. In sunrise states at least, political influence appears to be particularly effective over time as the reviews’ persuasive power wanes and repeat players are eventually able to succeed, especially if they have gotten a first domino to fall in another state.
And our study suggests this political influence comes at a cost. We identified 84 new licenses that were enacted without sunrise recommendations in support. In the 42 occupations for which we could obtain data, at least 107,000 people currently hold licenses that may not be warranted—to say nothing of past licensees, the other occupations without readily available licensee counts, people in other states with those same licenses, or the people blocked from entering those occupations because they do not have the time or financial resources to become licensed. Unnecessary licenses shut honest, hardworking people like Mary Jackson, the lactation consultant from our introduction, out of work. They waste resources. They cost consumers, and they cost the economy at large.
Thus, this study’s most important lesson for licensing policy is this: With or without a sunrise process, legislators should maintain a healthy skepticism of proposals for new occupational regulation and new licenses—especially when they come from industry groups. They should demand systematic, empirical proof of real and substantial harms from an occupation as well as evidence that the regulation proposed is both the best suited and the least restrictive necessary to address those harms. Well-reasoned, evidence-based policymaking is the best way to protect public safety while maintaining occupational freedom.