Daryl James: Utah investigator forces licensing reform, but other battles remain

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski) Colorado Gov. Jared Polis makes a point during a news conference, May 11, in Denver.

Getting a license to work as a private investigator is not easy in Utah. A person needs a clean criminal record, a $10,000 surety bond and at least 2,000 hours of experience.

Former police officer Jeremy Barnes met all the requirements, but government regulators wanted one more thing: Utah residence. Barnes did not qualify because he lives three minutes north of the state line in Franklin, Idaho.

The technicality should not have mattered, given 150 years of U.S. Supreme Court authority affirming the centrality of open internal borders to the whole American project. Put simply, the Constitution bars discrimination against residents of other states. Unfortunately, Utah’s Private Investigator Hearing and Licensure Board refused to budge.

Rather than give up his dream for a second career, Barnes partnered with the nonprofit Institute for Justice and fought back in federal court. The state had little chance of winning the case, so lawmakers intervened in June with emergency legislation to eliminate the illegal requirement.

The fix will clear the way for Barnes to get his license in September during the next round of applications, which settles the matter. But the hassle shows the need for continued reform in a state that prides itself on economic liberty — the right to earn an honest living without unnecessary government interference.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis showed a better way to stimulate growth on July 11. While Utah lawmakers were quibbling over residency, Polis vetoed a bill to extend occupational licensing for the entire profession.

The bold move means private investigators in Colorado no longer need permission from government bureaucrats to open shop or stay in business. Instead, the state will get out of the way and let consumers decide for themselves who they want to hire.

The deregulation is part of a pattern in Colorado. In 2019 Polis vetoed a bill that would have licensed genetic counselors and a separate bill that would have licensed sports agents. Each time, Polis warned about excessive occupational licensing.

“Too often it is used to protect existing professionals within an occupation against competition from newcomers entering that occupation,” he explained.

Florida has taken a similar approach, most recently with comprehensive reform signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on June 30. The law reduces educational requirements, licensing fees and other hassles for many types of professionals.

Utah has made progress of its own. Since 2017 the state has scaled back occupational licensing requirements for nurses, hair designers, security guards, mobile home installers and others. The changes are great, as far as they go, but other interventions have been more about appearances than actual reform.

On March 30, for example, Gov. Gary Herbert signed a measure that claims to provide universal recognition of occupational licenses from other states. If properly enforced, the law would let cosmetologists and other licensed professionals move to Utah without worrying about going back to school or taking new exams.

Buried in the text, however, is a loophole that allows state regulators to void the reciprocity agreement anytime they believe a person is “not qualified to receive a license in this state.” The broad language could mean almost anything.

Utah needs something more than incremental progress and fake reform that undercuts itself in the fine print. As things stand, unnecessary barriers remain for workers in more than 60 professions. Research from Utah State University shows that women and minorities tend to suffer the most from the regulatory burden in Utah.

It doesn’t take a private investigator to figure out the damage. Governments that want growth should make things easier, not harder, for all workers to contribute to the economy.

Daryl James

Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.

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