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Occupational licensing consolidation bill filed, public hearing today

More than three dozen state occupational licensing boards would be managed by a new state office and staff under Senate Bill 224 filed Tuesday. The transition would start with boards currently managed by private contractors, at least a few of which have come under legislative scrutiny in the last year.

Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Josephine, earlier this month emailed his colleagues a draft of the 513-page bill. A public hearing on the bill is scheduled in the County and Municipal Government Committee, which Elliott chairs, Wednesday afternoon. It creates the Office of Occupational and Professional Licensing within the Department of Labor to serve as a centralized source of leadership, support, and oversight to the boards that license thousands of Alabamians, from massage therapists to electricians.

The boards are generally appointed by the governor, but currently can outsource their day-to-day management.

That’s created a little industry in Montgomery that’s profitable enough to have led to a court fight. In 2020, Montgomery business owner and lobbyist Keith Warren sued Claire Austin to keep her out of the board management businesses. She won and now manages four boards. Both lobbyists’ boards would go under the umbrella agency created by Elliott’s bill.

“We’re taking the boards that are run by private, for-profit companies and putting them up underneath this new (office),” Elliott told Alabama Daily News.

“It’s getting them out of the for-profit world, which they never should have been in,” Elliott said. “Then we’re looking back through the balance of all the occupational licensing boards that are smaller in nature and would probably benefit most from some efficiency.”

The boards are funded through licensing fees and fines, which creates an “eat what you kill” mentality, Elliott said.

There’s no fiscal note on the bill yet but Elliott says the centralization and shared staff will save money.

“Making those licenses easier to obtain and less expensive is a good thing for Alabama workers,” Elliott said.

Austin told AIP a state agency can’t operate boards more efficiently than she does, spending less than budgeted. She said she’s saved the state hundreds of thousands of dollars running boards like she would her own home or business.

“I know unequivocally that there’s no way (the state) can manage them for less than what I do,” Austin said.

She said she and two staff members manage the four boards. Services include coordinating the necessary licensure testing.

“I’ve been a Republican conservative all my life and always thought that Republican conservatives wanted less government, not more government,” she said. “But this new regime, and I guess Elliott, is not a conservative Republican because this is creating a monster in government.”

Elliott sponsored an occupational board consolidation bill in the 2023 session but said it was mostly to get people’s attention to issues of board management.

In the last year, two legislative panels, the Sunset Committee, which reauthorizes multiple boards each year, and the Contract Review Committee, have put more attention on the boards’ management, spending and compliance with state laws, calling several on the carpet.

Last spring, some heated discussions about the Alabama Massage Therapy Licensing Board and its fees, began. In November, Warren, for about 24 hours, stopped providing management services to the massage board amid a contract dispute with lawmakers and the Sunset Committee’s suggestion the board be disbanded and reformed because of persistent management issues.

Elliott’s new bill is bigger and has the support of Gov. Kay Ivey.

“Since taking office, Governor Ivey has sought ways to make state government more efficient, more accountable and more transparent,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola said. “If done properly, consolidating the array of state regulatory boards would help accomplish these goals. This bill has the governor’s approval, and if approved by the Legislature, she plans to sign it into law.”

Boards would be transferred under the umbrella group in two phases. There are some boards exempted from the bill, including those who license architects, cosmetologists and barbers, land surveyors, attorneys, realtors, funeral service providers, general contractors, heating and air-conditioning, home builders, plumbers, dentists, doctors, nurses and pharmacists.

“That was a negotiation between me and the governor’s office, I would have liked to see more of them included,” Elliott said. “… They had some very real concerns about the size of some of those boards and the ability to implement this quickly.”

Those boards license large numbers of people and have significant staffs, Elliott said. But they could be put under the umbrella agency in the future, he said.

“(This legislation) is a sea change practically and it is pointing us in the right direction, we may very well add some (boards) later on,” he said.

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