COMMENTARY

Uprooting of landscape licensing would affect other fields

4/20/2012
BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

LANSING -- If there are two things Marie Donigan knows, they are landscape architecture and Lansing. She had a long career as a landscape architect before she got into politics.

She served six years in the Michigan House, the maximum that term limits now allow. And she accomplished something for her first profession just before she left at the end of 2010.

"In my last session, we finally passed bills to license landscape architects," said the 57-year-old Democrat, who is now a consultant for a community planning firm. Licensing solved a big problem, she said.

"Federal and state agencies require licensing for professionals who want to bid on government projects," she said. "Our former status put Michigan firms at a disadvantage."

Passing the licensing bill gave her a sense of accomplishment. But now, everything she did seems likely to be undone.

Gov. Rick Snyder set up an advisory committee to look into the possibility of the state deregulating various occupations. This week, the committee released a stunning report that recommends abolishing nine occupational boards and ending regulation of 18 occupations -- including landscape architects, speech pathologists, dietitians, nutritionists, and even those who provide respiratory care.

Deregulating some of the affected occupations may pose little potential harm to consumers -- auctioneers, for instance. But others set off red flags.

A spokesman for the Michigan Speech-Language-Hearing Association said its members were stunned by the news. Until legislation was passed in 2009, Michigan was one of only two states that didn't require speech pathologists to be licensed professionals. It took time to agree on a procedure, but the licensing process was supposed to be complete by next year, the spokesman said.

Now, things are again uncertain. Governor Snyder, who was off visiting troops in Afghanistan, didn't immediately react to the report, which was announced by the somewhat oddly named Office of Regulatory Reinvention. But its recommendations are very much in keeping with the spirit of his administration.

He has been outspoken in favor of streamlining government and limiting regulation, especially when it affects the creation of jobs. That was very much on the mind of Steven Hilfinger, who heads the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

He told Gongwer News Service: "This study found that each occupation that a state regulated … would experience a decrease in the rate of job growth by 20 percent on average."

Critics shot back that if that meant keeping unqualified and incompetent people out, it was well worth it. But state officials said public-safety concerns were taken into consideration.

Rob Nederhood, deputy director of the Office of Regulatory Reinvention, said: "In a number of cases, the criterion we looked at was whether there was a clear public safety benefit to the regulations." The office concluded that "in many of these cases, the committee felt the government doesn't need to be involved."

"There are private certifications that serve the same function," he said.

A 48-year-old speech pathologist who didn't want to be identified agreed, at least about her profession.

The woman, who has practiced for more than 20 years, said her profession already is monitored and regulated by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association.

But she said she still favors licensing as an extra safeguard, even though it would cost her money.

The woman, who often works in a hospital setting, was sharply critical of the governor's decision to regulate other occupations, including acupuncturists and those involved in respiratory care.

Mr. Nederhood responded with what sounded like classic libertarian thinking: "If there's a bad actor out there, their reputation would suffer and you have the Bureau of Consumer Protection or legal action for that."

That may be true. But nobody is likely to want to spend an hour on Google before hiring a respiratory therapist or getting a security alarm system.

Dawn Kutney, a consultant for the state speech pathology organization, said if licensing is abandoned, it would be harder for any professional who moves in or out of Michigan "because the standards are different. It also affects how we are paid for our services."

That was echoed by Ms. Donigan, the former legislator. "Landscape architects design all sorts of structures, including public safety and welfare stuff. It makes me plenty mad that some bureaucrat libertarian is going to undo what we did without even asking us why we did it."

The next step is likely up to the governor. Other occupations slated for deregulation include community planners, consumer finance services, foresters, polygraph examiners, and insurance solicitors. A complete list is at michigan.gov/orr.

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Just asking: Virtually every Republican in Michigan's Legislature opposes the health-care plan President Obama managed to push through Congress two years ago. Many say their main objection is to its provision that requires people to purchase private health insurance.

The U.S. Supreme Court soon will decide the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But last week, many of the same Republican state lawmakers who say the insurance mandate is unconstitutional voted to allow motorcyclists to ride without helmets -- if they buy at least $20,000 worth of insurance.

Is there a contradiction here?

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com