A small outfit in Oklahoma City is trying to make a big difference in the way the state approaches policy decisions. The 1889 Institute’s ongoing look at occupational licensing is one worth noting.


The think tank says it is “committed to independent, principled state policy fostering limited and responsible government, free enterprise and a robust civil society.” Onerous licensing rules get in the way of item No. 2, in particular.


The institute has presented several recommendations this summer as part of its “Licensing Directory for Oklahoma.” Its most recent offering involves massage therapy licensing, which the Legislature approved in 2016.


Some lawmakers saw licensing of these jobs through the Board of Barbering and Cosmetology as a way to reduce human trafficking, a noble pursuit. Yet the institute notes that licensing “isn’t an adequate or necessary legislative response to human trafficking.”


Under the law, applicants must be at least 18, complete at least 500 hours of massage therapy education, pass a nationally recognized exam, carry liability insurance and disclose any past crimes. The law includes a grandfather provision for applicants who have liability insurance and either have five years’ experience, have completed 500 hours of training or have passed a national exam.


Grandfather provisions in licensing laws “undermine claims that such Acts are serious about protecting the public,” the institute’s report says. “The supposed bad actors on the prowl prior to 2016 could easily be grandfathered in.”


But since 2016, the institute notes, the number of massage therapists in Oklahoma has fallen by 18 percent, “a clear sign that massage therapy as an economic opportunity has been stifled.”


A separate report recommended deregulating abstracting in Oklahoma. Abstractors research the ownership history of property. By law, abstracts must be prepared for all Oklahoma property sales as a condition for buying title insurance, which is needed for mortgaged property.


Oklahoma licenses abstractors. It also requires all abstracting companies to maintain title records, separate from the county recording office; requires a permit to create those records; requires a licensed attorney to review all abstracts, and requires abstract companies to obtain a certificate of authority from the state Abstractors Board.


A research fellow at the institute said abstractors and title insurers do important work. But after looking at practices in other states, he said, “it appears that Oklahoma has done its best to make the buying and selling of real property as onerous and costly as possible.” The institute recommends, among other things, doing away with the Abstractors Board and ending abstracting licensing.


Such proposals are generally met with opposition by those who are established in these fields. The state’s former labor commissioner faced considerable headwinds from various agencies while reviewing occupational licensing in Oklahoma.


Yet it’s an important exercise. Burdensome rules make it more difficult for many Oklahomans to find work, and they can make services more expensive for consumers. The 1889 Institute should keep its recommendations coming.


— The Oklahoman