Barbershop Fiasco Inspires Call for Cutting ‘Silly’ Regulations

Most states have outdated laws. In New Hampshire, a rule about which businesses can use red, white and blue paint has spurred a backlash against such red tape.
by | October 2017
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State regulations adopted for what somebody once considered a good reason can turn out to be needless or even nonsensical when invoked in the present-day economy. Consider the question of red, white and blue paint. Just the words evoke patriotic imagery common to all Americans. In New Hampshire, however, red, white and blue stripes -- at least when painted on the side of a commercial property as an advertisement -- are the exclusive province of barbers.

That was the determination of the state Board of Barbering, Cosmetology and Esthetics. Earlier this year, it fined Sarah Lounder for having the stripes outside her salon, where she is a cosmetologist, not a barber. Determining that she had misled the public, the board fined her $3. Certainly, that’s not a big deal. But when Lounder refused to paint over the stripes -- they were a holdover from an earlier barber and, at any rate, she didn’t own the building -- the board upped the penalty to $500. It also threatened to yank her license before, as the Keene Sentinel put it, “the board came to its collective senses and dropped the matter on appeal.”

To Gov. Chris Sununu, this incident was prime evidence for his contention that the state has too many rules. He stopped by Lounder’s shop this summer to decry what he called “silly regulations,” taking a red pen to those that appeared duplicative or obsolete, such as ones pertaining to state agencies that no longer exist. Sununu says he expected to find 200 examples of “low-hanging fruit.” Instead, he identified 1,600 rules that could be wiped off the books without doing any harm.

Now Sununu is calling on agencies and a steering committee to find more rules worth getting rid of. “Unfortunately, we’ve become a very overregulated state,” Sununu says. “Maybe the rules were well-intended, but technology moves on.”

The simple truth, however, is that, in New Hampshire at least, there’s not much a governor can do on his own about regulations. Authority over almost all rulemaking, and dispensing of rules, belongs to the legislature. “It’s largely a political stunt,” says Democratic state Sen. Dan Feltes of Sununu’s crusade.

Feltes has a point. None of Sununu’s actions did anything to address the regulation that Lounder was accused of violating, even as the governor held court in her store. “In New Hampshire, in most cases you need to change the law in order to have the rule changed,” says Carol McGuire, a Republican representative who chairs the state House Administrative Rules Committee.

But McGuire notes that legislators often work with agencies that identify rules to repeal via statute. The governor may not be able to eliminate rules by fiat, but the fact that his administration is making a formal effort to comb through the statute book to look for questionable examples can only draw more legislative attention to the matter. “He does have a bully pulpit,” McGuire says. “He’s kind of accelerated the process of eliminating obsolete laws.”