Iowa workers burdened by excessive licensing laws

Lawmakers should not create new rules without getting rid old ones

U.S. property mogul Donald Trump holds a golf club during a media event on the sand dunes of the Menie estate, the site for Trump's proposed golf resort, near Aberdeen, Scotland, Britain May 27, 2010.  REUTERS/David Moir/File Photo
U.S. property mogul Donald Trump holds a golf club during a media event on the sand dunes of the Menie estate, the site for Trump's proposed golf resort, near Aberdeen, Scotland, Britain May 27, 2010. REUTERS/David Moir/File Photo

Iowa lawmakers are moving backward on one of the most important economic freedom issues of our time.

The Legislature is considering at least three bills this session to create new professional licensing systems. It’s a sharp departure from then-Gov. Terry Branstad’s failed 2017 attempt to shrink and modernize our licensing laws.

This is an opportunity for Iowa Republicans to borrow an idea from President Donald Trump’s policy playbook. During the first days of his presidency, Trump signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to cut two existing regulations for every new regulation they impose.

If legislators insist on inventing new license requirements this year, they should pick at least as many to eliminate among more than 100 professional licenses now required by Iowa law.

I detest licensing on principle. The government revokes your right to work, then sells it back to you, with strings attached.

Even setting my radical libertarian ideology aside, Iowa still is failing from a pragmatic policy standpoint. We require licenses for too many jobs, and even some of the necessary ones carry excessive fees or coursework mandates.

Several right-wing advocacy groups are revving up their efforts to repeal work regulations imposed by state governments.


A study published late last year by the Institute for Justice ranked Iowa’s professional licensing system the 12th most onerous among 50 states and found, “Iowa frequently licenses occupations that are rarely licensed elsewhere,” including travel agencies and dental assistants.

Americans for Prosperity has led the charge for licensing reform at the Iowa Statehouse, calling on lawmakers to significantly reduce the number of jobs requiring a state license.

“By requiring costly government permission slips to earn a living, state government is throwing up serious barriers to opportunity for workers in our state,” Americans for Prosperity state director Drew Klein said in a statement published before the 2018 legislative session.

Two years ago, Iowa lawmakers passed a law to remove licensing requirements from natural hair braiding, a small but important win for the deregulation movement.

Last year, however, lawmakers declined to take up a Branstad-backed bill to reduce or eliminate licensing requirements for several professions, including interior designers and hearing-aid specialists.

“Dozens of paid lobbyists representing those industries filed their opposition to the Branstad bill that was nixed this week. Licensed professionals support higher barriers to entry in their fields because it undercuts their would-be competitors. It’s textbook economic protectionism,” I wrote at the time.

Bills in the Iowa Legislature this year include Republican-sponsored proposals to license midwives and genetic counselors, and a Democrat-sponsored proposal to license art therapists. Those bills are backed by constituents from those industries who argue they need licensure in order to participate in insurance or comply with other state and federal regulations.

If a majority of lawmakers agree to license those jobs, surely they can find three others to set free from the licensing system. Maybe bulk milk hauler, nail technologist, or solid waste incinerator operator?


Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, introduced the midwife bill last year, and also vocally opposed Branstad’s proposed overhaul.

Kaufmann told me he’s open to some licensing reform, but he’s calling for a multiyear review of current laws. He said the “monumental” bill he opposed last year was introduced too late to give stakeholders adequate time to vet it.

“I see the licensure system a lot like the tax credit system. In an ideal world, everyone would be equal and you wouldn’t have to have it,” Kaufmann said.

My own state Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, is sponsoring the art therapist bill, and said he is receptive to taking a more thorough look at the rules.

“I am sympathetic to the idea that we don’t need to license everything. On the other hand, it comes down to the specific profession if it makes sense or not. I think in general it’s good to do some kind of comprehensive review,” Bolkcom told me.

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