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Do you have a license for that bouquet?

August 24, 2018
By Danny Heitman
Originally Posted on Wall Street Journal Opinion & Reviews

Louisianans pride themselves on doing things a bit differently. Some hold jazz funerals, greeting death with a festive parade. Not a few Cajuns mark Mardi Gras by chasing chickens on horseback. Diners not only endure but embrace the presence of alligator on restaurant menus.

But on a more prosaic point of public policy, Louisiana is a less flattering outlier. It’s the only state in the union that requires florists to pass a licensing exam before they can make and sell flower arrangements. And the local florist is but a poster child for Louisiana’s extensive licensing laws, which have proved particularly resistant to reform.

On paper at least, outdated licensing rules ought to be easy to repeal. Louisiana these days is a reliably red state, with voters typically skeptical of activist government. The lone Democrat in statewide elective office, Gov. John Bel Edwards, won in 2015 only after an election widely viewed as a fluke. His Republican rival, then-Sen. David Vitter, had previously been linked to a Washington escort service.

Since becoming governor, Mr. Edwards has continued to highlight his conservative sympathies, including pro-gun and antiabortion stances. This spring, trying to burnish his free-market credentials, he backed a legislative push to do away with the florist exam. This could have been a first step toward broader reforms of the state’s licensing practices.

Groups that usually butt heads with Mr. Edwards, such as the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, cheered the prospect. “Occupational licenses are essentially government permission slips to work in certain professions,” John Kay, a state director of Americans for Prosperity, wrote in a March op-ed. “In Louisiana, it costs an average of $360 in fees and 202 days of education and experience to obtain an occupational license. For many in our state, particularly the least fortunate, those are insurmountable obstacles and therefore act as barriers to enter certain occupations.”

Louisiana’s regulation of florists began in 1950, perhaps not coincidentally under the governorship of the flamboyant machine politician Earl K. Long, Huey’s younger brother. More than one observer has pointed to Louisiana’s broad licensing requirements as a legacy of Longism, which promised to nurture and protect citizens while concentrating power in the state capital.

For today’s reformers, the floral exam seemed like the easiest target. Louisiana’s illustrious history records no instance of anyone being harmed by a poorly arranged bouquet. “I’m not sure why we do that,” Mr. Edwards said of the requirement. “Louisiana ranks as the sixth-worst in the nation for convoluted licensing requirements. We can fix that.” Julie Emerson, the Republican state representative who wrote a bill to abolish the test, argued that consumers can quickly weed out bad florists: “That’s how competition and the free market works.”

But a Senate panel killed Ms. Emerson’s bill in May after hearing objections from officials at the state Agriculture Department. It runs the licensing program, meaning its bureaucrats would have less to do without floral licenses to dole out. 

Mike Strain, the elected Republican agriculture commissioner, went along with the charade, vaguely defending the licensing scheme. “There’s a certain amount of regulation to make sure the public gets what they pay for,” he said. Licensed florists, who benefit from government-imposed limits on competition, also testified against the bill. Lawmakers ultimately approved a plan to study the state’s occupational licensing requirements, a classic do-nothing move. 

Critics of licensing have scored a victory on another front, however. Confronted by a lawsuit, Louisiana’s Board of Cosmetology dropped many of its requirements this spring for practitioners of a hair-removal technique known as eyebrow threading. The state had required eyebrow threaders to take 750 hours of beauty-school courses and three exams, at a cost of $6,000 to $13,000. The Institute for Justice, the libertarian nonprofit behind the lawsuit, agreed to drop the case after regulators backed off. Now eyebrow threaders need to pass one test and obtain a permit. Total cost: $50.

The path to fixing Louisiana’s burdensome licensing requirements, then, seems to run through the courts, not the GOP Legislature. Which is why in this conservative state, even a modest spray of daisies still must be government-approved.