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The Problem With One-Size-Fits-All ‘Universal Licensing’

Making it easier for professionals to practice across state lines is appealing, but if it isn't done right, it can endanger the public's health and safety.

Professions like architecture, certified public accounting, engineering, landscape architecture and surveying require rigorous and ongoing education, examination and experience. Universal licensing could undermine the trust and confidence needed for successful interstate practice.
As states move toward reopening and more Americans are vaccinated, policymakers across the country are prioritizing a quick economic recovery. The latest trend among state lawmakers looking to solve economic challenges is occupational licensing reform, often in the form of so-called “universal licensing” — requiring states to grant a license to a license holder from any state across all occupations and professions.

But poorly conceived, one-size-fits-all licensing reform creates a new set of problems. Lawmakers are working against the interests of their constituents by scaling back regulations and established accountability models that have protected the public for decades.

Over the years, we have seen firsthand the consequences when necessary regulations and protective measures are deemed unnecessary due to political interests. That was evident most recently in Texas with the power crisis following February’s winter storms. Regulations were changed more than 20 years ago in favor of “consumer choice” and an open market.

As a result, there was no agency enforcing accountability, such as updating energy resources for the state, and the public suffered when the system failed in the end. It was just the latest example of what can happen when you remove oversight in the name of low costs.

The goal of so-called universal licensing reform is certainly admirable: to make it easier for people to move with their careers. Of course people should be able to work where they want, but we must protect the public by ensuring that license holders, particularly in highly technical professions, are qualified wherever they practice.

Professions like architecture, certified public accounting, engineering, landscape architecture and surveying are responsible for the integrity of the nation’s buildings and other physical infrastructure, as well as its financial systems. Each profession requires rigorous and ongoing education, examination and experience.

The key failing of these bills — and why universal licensing is set up to fail — is that they don't consider how critical what’s known as “substantial equivalence” is to successful interstate practice. Substantial equivalence refers to the trust and confidence that the qualifications underlying one state’s license are on par with those of other states.

Without the trust and accountability of substantial equivalence, policymakers will create problems for consumers who will no longer have faith in the qualifications of professionals. What mistake will need to occur for us to look back and realize that reasonable regulation matters?

Some proponents of universal licensing reform point to doctors and other medical professionals being allowed to practice across state lines and mobilize where they have been most needed during the COVID-19 crisis. However, the interstate practice of medical professionals is actually an argument in favor of rigorous standards and substantial equivalency.

The reason states could trust that out-of-state doctors were qualified to help was because they had confidence in the strong underlying licensing requirements and the licensing systems that uphold them: substantial equivalence. In every state, medical professionals must meet stringent licensing standards. The country’s ability to respond to the crisis was made possible because of a strong licensing system — not in spite of it. If COVID-19 taught us anything about licensing, it’s that strong, consistent licensing standards are a critical foundation for professions entrusted to protect the public.

All of this only reinforces why a one-size-fits-all approach across hundreds, if not thousands, of occupations and professions doesn't work. Reform must be carefully considered, with the recognition and understanding that broad-brush legislation is not the answer. Consumers have been well served by rigorous licensing systems, allowing us to have confidence that the professionals who are entrusted to design and build our roads, airports, bridges, buildings and financial systems are qualified to do so.

Every consumer deserves the same protections and access to high-quality services and high-caliber, licensed professionals. That’s why lawmakers must avoid these broad-brush measures and look to existing professional licensing models that have evolved and served the public well, in some cases for more than 100 years. These models allow for access to services without risking public safety, health and welfare.

Certainly, there are barriers to entry for some occupations that require the attention of lawmakers to attract new talent and expertise and spur economic recovery. But any licensing reform must be done thoughtfully and carefully, keeping in mind the public’s health, safety and welfare and the licensed professionals who have dedicated years to their field. Licensing done right works.

Marta Zaniewski is executive director of the Alliance for Responsible Professional Licensing and vice president for state regulatory and legislative affairs at the American Institute of CPAs.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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