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In Senate, licensing boards face scrutiny

The usually sleepy passage of “sunset bills” in the Senate could be met with controversy as early as today.

Each year, Alabama lawmakers pass a slew of procedural legislation to extend the authority of dozens of occupational boards that license and regulate many professionals in Alabama, from air-condition technicians to waste water system installers. 

Their passage is often a nonevent in the House and Senate, most of the homework being done months prior by the representatives and senators on the Joint Sunset Committee.

But that might not be the case when several House-approved sunset bills hit the Senate floor this week after being amended in a Senate committee to reduce the years the agencies are extended, and in the case of the Alabama Massage Therapy Board, cancel fee increases on licensees that lawmakers approved last year when told they were necessary to combat human trafficking. 

Citing the need for more oversight of the quasi-government agencies that can license, regulate and fine thousands of Alabama workers, several senators later told Alabama Daily News there’s a concerted effort for more regulation of the agencies whose board members are appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey but can be run with outsourced management.

The boards are funded largely by fees they collect from licensees on authority given by the state.

Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, said people consider these boards as state government and it’s up to lawmakers to “to make sure that they are the best possible ambassadors for that occupation that they can be.” 

Gudger is newly appointed to the sunset committee that recommends board be continued with no changes for two to four years, continued with changes or be terminated. Whatever they suggest, it has to be approved by the House and Senate. 

Gudger, chairman of the Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee, last Wednesday amended bills related to five boards to require that they be reviewed again in one year. For the Board of Massage Therapy, Gudger successfully substituted the bill to make some changes to how the board operates, but also drop licensing fees to what they were before a significant increase was approved by lawmakers in 2022.

Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, is the newly appointed co-chair of Sunset, a body he calls a “worker bee committee.” It began meeting last summer to review various boards and makes recommendations about what should happen with them.

“I’m not offended if a member of the House or Senate may want to look closer at some of the work that’s been done or share what their thoughts are,” Barfoot said. But he also doesn’t want the committee’s work discarded in the 11th hour. He said that if Sunset is operating correctly, a vast majority of the authority extending bills won’t run into problems later in the legislative process.

Barfoot expects more discussions on some of changed bills. 

Overhaul bill

Last week, Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Josephine, saw his bill to consolidate some of the processes of Alabama’s dozens of occupational licensing boards advance though his County and Municipal Government Committee.

“There’s a coordinated effort in the Senate to take a serious look at occupational licensing,” Elliott told Alabama Daily News last week.

He said Senate Bill 156 to streamline some of the work of the boards will save money and make an easier process for licensees. There was no fiscal note on the bill detailing possible savings to the state as of last week. 

In committee, Elliott said his bill wouldn’t affect the boards or their rules, but would consolidate “back office” licensing administration under an Occupational Licensing Boards Division of the Secretary of State. He said one office could check a potential licensee’s application for the needed qualifications.

“You don’t have to have that duplication on every single board, in every single silo,” Elliott said. 

During a public hearing, representatives from two licensing boards spoke against the bill. 

Discussing the efficiencies and operations of boards, senators asked Rachel Riddle, the chief examiner at the Examiners of Public Accounts, the agency that periodically audits all state boards and bodies, if getting information from some boards is sometimes difficult.

“We do have some accessibility issues,” Riddle said. “My assumption is that if we’re having accessibility issues, the public is having accessibility issues.” 

Elliott amended the bill to exempt a handful of boards that he said have nuanced licensing and who interact frequently with federal agencies. They are the State Board of Public Accountancy, State Banking Department, the Peace Officers’ Standards and Training Commission, the Securities Commission and the Department of Insurance.

Some Democrats on the committee questioned the need for the bill and Sen. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, said she’d later bring an amendment to exempt other agencies.  Senate Bill 156 has eight Senate co-sponsors and now moves to that chamber. 

Focus on the massage board

Keith Warren is the executive director of the state massage board, one of 15 boards his Montgomery based company manages.

Last year, lawmakers approved House Bill 453, which, among other things, significantly raised various licensee fees on massage therapists. Under the bill, an initial massage therapist’s license went from $100 to $250. Biannual renewals went from $100 to $300. It was the first fee increase for massage therapists in the state in more than 20 years, Warren told Alabama Daily News, and needed as the board tries to combat human trafficking and other illicit activities.

But at Gudger’s fiscal responsibility committee meeting last week, one of his constituents, massage therapist Kristie Williams of Arley in Winston County, accused the board under Warren’s management of lacking government oversight and accountability.

Warren did not publicly dispute Williams’ claims, but later told Alabama Daily News he has done nothing wrong or outside the law.

About the fee increases, he said between the board and his own office, there are three full-time investigators who pursue complaints about massage therapists or establishments. Their time and travel, and his time, cost money.

 “There is a lot of paperwork that goes along with each case,” he said.

According to an Examiners’ audit for 2021, the massage board pays Warren’s company $132,000 per year for his management services and office space. It then had one part-time investigator. It licensed 2,047 massage therapists and 633 establishments. The board’s total receipts, mostly through license fees, was $171,655.13 in fiscal 2021.

While senators aren’t disputing the need to combat human trafficking or abuse, they say that should be a function of law enforcement, not the licensing board. That’s at least part of the reason Gudger’s substitute bill reduces licensing fees to 2022 levels.

Warren is now asking that Gudger’s substitute bill be killed, though he said he’s OK with having the board extended only one year and undergoing another audit next year.

“We have nothing to hide,” he said.

Meanwhile, Williams said she wants the massage board and Warren to stick up for her profession.

“Massage therapists, we’re sometimes at the butt of other people’s jokes,” Williams said, including one at last week’s committee meeting.

Sen. Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery, jokingly asked Warren about some of the illicit things massage therapists do that they shouldn’t and then quickly said, “No, don’t answer that.”

The men shared a laugh.

“I’ve never turned red so fast,” Warren told the committee.

Beside a massage board, Gudger last week also amended the bills for the Alabama Professional Bail Bonding Board, the Alabama Security Regulatory Board, the Alabama Onsite Wastewater Board and the Alabama Athletic Commission, requiring them to be reviewed again next year.

“We’re trying to make sure they understand that there are people watching and they need to clear up (outstanding issues) for the taxpayers of Alabama,” Gudger said.

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