Commentary: How state licensing laws keep Texans safer

I’m particularly unqualified to evaluate the Koch Brothers-seeded Institute for Justice’s attack on Texas regulation of eyelash extensions written by Arif Panju, published in the American-Statesman last week. Somehow, cosmetology always seems to be at the front of the line when ideologues go after our state’s modicum of safety oversight.

Lawmakers keep insisting – rightly – that people who provide important services for Texas customers have legitimate qualifications. They should know. When Texas didn’t have such regulations, our state could be a more dangerous place because of fraudulent work or just plain incompetence.

Would you want to get on an airplane flown by an unlicensed pilot? Would you want your house wired by an unlicensed electrician? Would you be comfortable knowing the elevator in your office building was installed by someone off the street? Would you think it fair if your boss put your job in the hands of an unlicensed polygraph operator? Would you want someone removing mold in your home to have little practical experience? This doesn’t touch on the equally obvious needs for state oversight in health professions like medicine, dentistry and nursing, or in public safety professions like police, firefighting and emergency services.

COMMENTARY: Time to rein in occupational licensing laws in Texas.

Not every license in Texas protects lives or promotes health and safety, but all address important consumer interests. Tow-truck operators, for example, could cause all sorts of damage to cars and wallets if they were not subject to qualifications and rules. The background checks for massage therapists, drivers in transportation network companies and even my own occupation of plumber involve issues of basic trust and sometimes much more.

The lines at the edges of licensing, including the level of training needed before someone may practice independently, merit legislative examination based on changing knowledge in the field and other factors. By and large the systems in Texas have held up well when that occurs. Part of the reason for this, contrary to Panju’s assertions, is that the Legislature has insisted licensing boards include some level of representation from within a profession. Long ago, lawmakers realized the benefit of having expertise within each board outweighs an undefined risk of conflict of interest — especially when lay members of the public also sit on the board. They also realized that leaving oversight to the private sector is likely to lead to self-dealing and dangerous holes.

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Labor unions in the Texas construction industry have long supported reasonable and fair licensing regulations. We train our members through registered apprenticeship systems that let working people earn while they learn. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, for example, builds expertise through a multiyear, step-by-step process that leads to mastery in installing and repairing electrical systems. When someone completes an IBEW apprenticeship, regulatory hoops become easier to jump through. The registered apprenticeship model is so well-proven that nonunion companies in Texas have flocked to imitate the system.

Licensing, where appropriate, elevates the status of working people and helps them earn a fair shot at a better livelihood — regardless of whether the state has a board overseeing a profession. Achieving true mastery takes thousands of hours of hands-on work. In most cases, licensing builds integrity within a trade, serves customers and does right by our state.

Aguilar is executive director of the Texas State Building and Construction Trades Council.

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