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Florida lawmakers tread carefully with deregulation of professions this time

TALLAHASSEE — Rather than reignite a bitter debate over whether to remove from state oversight a series of professions including hair braiders and interior designers, lawmakers in 2012 are treading lightly in their quest to create jobs and spur the economy.

But it doesn't mean everyone is liking it — especially Florida architects.

Small but specific moves to scale back professional laws are proceeding through the legislative process, addressing a spectrum of regulations from continuing education hours to work experience and, most controversially, eliminating "protectionist" policies that keep out newcomers.

The targets include real estate agents, beauty specialists and accountants, but architects have generated debate akin to the 2011 interior designer fight.

Tampa Republican Rep. James Grant pushed his deregulation package (HB 517) through the House already. He billed it as this year's attempt to "make Florida the best state in the union to raise a family and do business," consistent with the wishes of House Speaker Dean Cannon and Gov. Rick Scott.

His bill removes criminal penalties for auctioneers, cosmetologists, barbers and real estate professionals who violate agency rules. Barbers, for example, could face misdemeanor charges for not sweeping excessive hair from the floor of their shops. But the state can already penalize workers for these kind of rules violations with fees and suspensions. The measure also includes a break on initial licensing fees for military veterans who apply within two years of being honorably discharged.

Those provisions, of course, are not where Grant found opposition. That came with his amendment allowing out-of-state architects who have 10 years of solid experience in another state to work in Florida without meeting the requirements necessary for a state license. He says that requirement comes with an "arbitrary" payment to a national certification board.

Grant's idea, which passed, set off a well-worn debate: Should officials value inviting competition to, hopefully, lower prices, or should they protect Florida's struggling workforce with higher standards?

Several Republicans joined with Democrats in opposing the bill, including Rep. Charles Van Zant, an architect from Keystone Heights, and Rep. Trudi Williams, a Fort Myers engineer who said she works with architects who are "mortified." Architects in Florida are required to have a master's degree, but these out-of-state architects would not have to obtain one.

"With the economy the way it is, and architects and engineers and surveyors suffering, why would we want to make it easier to bring in licensed architects to compete against our architects in the state of Florida who are starving for work?" Williams asked.

Grant said he's okay with recruiting out-of-staters.

"Perhaps it's just a difference in philosophy or ideology," he said on the House floor Feb. 2. "I happen to believe that competition in the marketplace only leads to innovation and lower prices and a better product for the consumer."

The legislation is not as sweeping as he would like, Grant said in an interview, but he feels pressured to make it palatable given the Senate's distaste for anything similar to last year's deregulation effort.

Plus, he said, "They're in chaos right now."

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, is the sponsor of SB 762, a deregulation package similar to Grant's proposal. There's a big difference: no architect amendment.

"I am in no way willing to accept the House language," Hays said, citing "Florida's unique soil structures" and "wind exposure."

That's a relief to Vicki Long, who heads the Florida Association of the American Institute of Architects. The state licensed 430 architects in 2011, she said, which "does not indicate to me that we have very terribly restrictive standards."

Hays' bill reduces the number of continuing education hours required of inactive license holders for several professions, making it easier to get back to work. Returning workers would have to take just one cycle of continuing education courses instead of a cycle for each year they were out of work.

The bill targets community association managers, home inspectors, mold professionals, cosmetologists, architects, landscape architects, construction contractors and alarm system contractors.

He knows it's really a modest step requested by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Still, "we all know that due to today's economy, there have been lots of folks who retired thinking they had plenty of money to get through only to find out their money has run out before their lives did," Hays said.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is behind a similar effort for certified public accountants (SB 1656). In addition to tweaks on prior work experience, Latvala's bill would allow out-of-state CPAs to obtain a Florida license providing they have at least 10 years of prior licensing in another state and are of "good moral character."

Grant may introduce a deregulation package resembling the House's 2011 effort in a future session, he said. For now he's fighting for what he sees as beneficial to a few industries.

"It's a small step in the direction of what we want to be," he said.

Katie Sanders can be reached at ksanders@tampabay.com.

Florida lawmakers tread carefully with deregulation of professions this time 02/10/12 [Last modified: Friday, February 10, 2012 7:24pm]
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