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Gov. Greg Abbott orders state agencies to reduce licensing regulations, cut fees

“Overbroad rules stymie innovation, raise consumer prices, and limit economic opportunity,” Gov. Greg Abbott wrote in the letter. Emree Weaver/The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered state agencies to review and overhaul their licensing requirements, with an eye toward providing Texans “the opportunity to earn a living free from unnecessary state intrusion.”

In an Oct. 8 letter to the heads of state agencies, signed by the Republican governor himself, Abbott directed agencies to trim licensing regulations, reduce fees and educational requirements for certain professions, and, “where appropriate,” remove licensing barriers for individuals with criminal records. He set a Dec. 1 deadline for agencies to tell his office which steps they plan to take. There are hundreds of professional licenses in Texas — from tow truck operators to physicians to laser hair removal technicians.

“Reforming Texas’s occupational-licensing rules must be a priority for all state leaders,” Abbott wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune. “Sensible licensing rules, when necessary, can protect the public from legitimate harm, but overbroad rules stymie innovation, raise consumer prices, and limit economic opportunity. Overly burdensome licensing rules also discourage individuals from pursuing professions or prevent the unemployed — or former inmates who have paid their debt to society — from building a better life.”

Several state agencies confirmed they received the letter and are preparing their responses. The governor’s office declined to comment further on the letter.

The fees associated with occupational licenses generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the state annually. Some of those dollars flow back to the agencies that levy the fees, for overhead and other operational costs, while much of the money is fed into the state’s general revenue fund, where it can be directed to other efforts.

Abbott ordered agencies to reduce license application fees to 75% or less of the national average for comparable occupations.

Occupational licenses are intended to guarantee a minimum level of experience for practitioners so as to protect consumer safety. A licensed manicurist who has to pass regular inspections is less likely to leave customers with nasty infections, for example. But many licensing programs require steep qualifications; to obtain a massage therapy license, one must complete a minimum of 500 hours of training. Some conservatives argue that some of the state’s educational requirements and fees are excessive and present unreasonable barriers for would-be practitioners.

David Fleeger, president of the Texas Medical Association, said the advocacy organization “certainly agrees that rules can be overly burdensome, so we applaud Governor Abbott’s efforts to reduce those regulatory burdens.”

In 2015, many on the right applauded the Texas Supreme Court for striking down as unconstitutional a requirement that eyebrow threaders complete 750 hours of training in order to obtain a license.

“This case is fundamentally about the American Dream and the unalienable human right to pursue happiness without curtsying to government on bended knee,” wrote then-Justice Don Willett in a widely heralded 49-page concurring opinion. “It is about whether government can connive with rent-seeking factions to ration liberty unrestrained.”

The Legislature also acts regularly to roll back licensing restrictions. This year, the governor signed a bill abolishing the criminal penalty for acting as a “registered interior designer” without proof of voluntary registration.

The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation — which oversees more industries than any other state agency — itself has deregulated nine license programs since 2003.

Abbott, a lawyer by trade, also wrote to state agencies in June 2018 with a hefty set of instructions. Then, he told agencies to submit any proposed rules to his office before they were made public — a move with the potential to slow the rule-making process and consolidate power in the governor’s office.

Earlier this year, the governor also acted independently, signing an executive order to keep alive the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners after the Legislature allowed it to shut down.

Abbott’s directives on licensing for individuals with criminal records come in conjunction with a bill passed in 2019 that limited authorities from considering license applicants’ arrests that did not result in convictions. The governor directed agencies to publish lists of specific offenses that disqualify applicants from obtaining an occupational license, as opposed to “relying on blanket exclusions for people with criminal records.”

In 2013, when Abbott was attorney general, he defended the state’s “sovereign right to impose categorical bans on the hiring of criminals” in a lawsuit against the Obama administration.

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