Wisconsin will see a push to roll back occupational licensing regulations in the upcoming legislative session — and it's a movement that has seen bipartisan support at the national level.

Assembly Republicans named occupational licensing reform as one of their legislative priorities for the next two years, previewing plans to assess whether Wisconsin's licensing requirements exceed the national average and whether any licenses that don't offer "legitimate public safety benefits" can be eliminated.

With a 64-35 majority, Assembly Republicans have a smooth path to pass most items on their policy wish list. Gov. Scott Walker has also signaled an interest in pursuing some of these changes.

A conservative law firm, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, released a report this week that it hopes will guide lawmakers as they pursue changes to the regulations that apply to professions ranging from bartenders to private security guards. 

While the cause is being trumpeted in Wisconsin by groups like WILL and the conservative Americans for Prosperity, it's one President Barack Obama has championed at the national level, and governors on both sides of the aisle have approved changes in other states. 

The WILL report argues the problem is twofold: too many professions require licenses, and the licensing requirements for some professions are excessive. Those regulations, the group argues, place unnecessary burdens on people trying to enter a profession and lead to higher costs for consumers.

"This is a regulatory scheme hurting low- and middle-income employment," said Collin Roth, a researcher who wrote the WILL report.

A White House fact sheet released in June argues the same points — that excessive licensing requirements can prevent skilled workers from entering fields in which they could excel and can pass on artificially inflated costs to consumers. 

The White House paper also notes a "patchwork of state-by-state licensing rules" that can make it difficult for workers to move from one state to another and continue in the same profession.

The Obama administration released a set of best practices in July 2015 aimed at helping states cut back on licensing requirements, and last summer issued additional information and resources, including $7.5 million in federal funding to help states pursue occupational licensing reform.

"What both sides of the political spectrum tend to agree … is that occupational licensing has really gotten far beyond its original intent to protect health and safety only," Roth said.

In Wisconsin, the first occupations to be brought under regulation included dentists, teachers, veterinarians and pharmacists, in the late 1800s. In the decades that followed, regulation had expanded to cover occupations including interior designers, auctioneers, geologists and massage therapists.

The WILL report offers a handful of suggested reforms, including moving to voluntary certification for some occupations and implementing a more stringent review of proposed and existing regulation.

The group also lists eight occupational licenses it says offer no public health or safety benefits: auctioneer, bartender, dietitian, landscape architect, private detective, private security person, sign language interpreter and interior designer.

Shawn Kelly, director of the Center for Sustainable Design in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, pushed back on that suggestion.

Kelly spent 11 years working with lawmakers to pass a bill creating the state's landscape architecture license. Wisconsin was the 47th state to establish such a license. 

"The biggest reason is the health, safety and welfare of the public," Kelly said of the need for a landscape architecture license. 

Kelly listed a few examples of landscape architecture work that affect public safety and welfare: playground safety, pollution prevention and dealing with runoff.

To earn a landscape architecture license, a person must graduate from an accredited landscape architecture program, fulfill an internship requirement and pass a national exam.

Kelly said he's concerned people interested in becoming landscape architects would stop coming to Wisconsin to study the field if the state no longer offered a license. 

He also argued that removing the license could create an unfair environment for architects competing for projects within the state. For instance, he said, if a new hospital were being built in Madison, insurance companies would require the use of licensed professionals on the project. Kelly, who also holds a California license, would have an advantage over architects who didn't hold licenses outside of Wisconsin, he argued.

Over the last two decades, the number of occupational license types in Wisconsin has increased by 84 percent and the number of license holders has increased by 34 percent.

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