August 1, 2014

Tallahassee Report: The Licensed Class

John D. McKinnon | 1/1/1996
Here's a curious tale that may force you to reexamine your assumptions about how government works. Florida's largest regulatory agency has vowed to give less protection to consumers and more freedom to Florida businesses and professionals. But far from applauding the Chiles administration for getting government off their backs, many groups around the state complain that they like being regulated.

The changes at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) began last February. Incoming Secretary Rick Farrell ordered a top-to-bottom review of the much-maligned agency, which oversees licensing of occupations ranging from hairdressers and massage therapists to geologists and time-share salesmen. DBPR was created almost three years ago in a merger of two agencies, the old Department of Business Regulation and the old Department of Professional Regulation. Separately, each agency had established a reputation for nit-picking and delay. At the new DBPR, the problems only had grown worse.

Gov. Chiles brought in Farrell, a former aide during his U.S. Senate days, to clean up the mess. Farrell says he quickly reached one important conclusion: that the agency was wasting too much time pursuing minor complaints against its 1.1 million licensees.

So for starters, Farrell has pulled the plug on DBPR's old consumer complaint hotlines. Instead, the agency is installing a recorded message on the lines telling callers how to obtain written complaint forms -- and pointedly warning them not to expect DBPR to solve all their problems.

"By setting up and advertising this toll-free number, we helped create the expectation in the consumer's mind that the department is here to solve your individual problem, to act as your personal attorney and get your money back," Farrell explained to a legislative committee recently. "We had become a kind of giant complaint resolution system, which was not our mission at all." Farrell also has instructed agency staff to concentrate their investigations on high-risk, repeat offenders.

Soon, Farrell will urge lawmakers to deregulate some occupations altogether and to scale back regulation of many others. The agency began considering widespread deregulation in response to a request last year by Senate leaders for 25% budget cut proposals from each agency. Conservative GOP senators defended the deep cut request as a way of forcing bloated bureaucracies to think creatively about reducing government costs at a time when the alternative -- new taxes -- is widely viewed as political poison.

Already, Farrell has provided senators with a long list of occupations that could be deregulated. Among others, it includes geologists; interior designers; time-share solicitors; building code administrators and inspectors; hearing aid specialists; asbestos consultants; yacht and ship brokers; waste water operators; massage therapists; barbers; cosmetologists; and mobile food vendors. In addition, the department probably will ask lawmakers to cut much of its regulation of hotels, apartments and resorts, as well as mobile home parks.

To help with the agency's agenda, Farrell called in Lance de Haven-Smith of the Florida Institute of Government to apply a concept known as "strategic regulation," which gives more weight to market forces in controlling business behavior. De Haven-Smith says the changes would allow DBPR to focus more resources on potentially big problems -- such as food-borne illnesses -- while making businesses more competitive. Costs of regulation "are a cost borne by consumers and by the state in terms of the business climate," de Haven-Smith says. "So there are some good reasons to consider a drastic cutback."

This effort to streamline DBPR will be politically difficult. As Chiles found out last year when he attempted a broader reform of the state's administrative code, a lot of businesses actually like the bureaucratic status quo. "Where I'm going to have the most opposition is from the groups that like being regulated," Farrell concedes. For members of many specialized occupations, state regulation "gives them credibility and a way to control access to the field," he adds.

Walt Schmidt, the chief of the state Geological Survey and a member of the state geology regulatory board, gives a flavor of the complaints likely to be heard from occupations that fear deregulation. "I think there is waste in government, but sometimes they throw the baby out with the bathwater," complains Schmidt, who thinks geologists need regulation even if massage therapists don't. "Some significant things get cut with the big meat ax."

Tags: Florida Small Business, Politics & Law, Business Florida

Florida Business News

Florida Trend Video Pick -

Major archaeological discovery unveiled
Major archaeological discovery unveiled

In roughly 15 feet of water about 1,000 feet offshore from Fort Pierce, shipwreck salvager Eric Schmitt made a major archaeological discovery.

Earlier Videos | Viewpoints@FloridaTrend

Ballot Box

Your thoughts about fast-food workers joining unions:

  • Good idea - they need more bargaining power (and possibly higher wages)
  • Not in favor - bad for business and the price of burgers

See Results

Ballot Box
Subscribe