“Who needs and doesn’t need licenses to work in Georgia spurs questions”

By: Kristina Torres

In Georgia, the professional landscaper reimagining your backyard may need three separate licenses to do the work you want, but not the woman who does your taxes.

Several dozen professional occupations — such as auctioneers, used car dealers, accountants, makeup artists and manicurists — require licenses to work in the Peach State. But not tax preparers.

It’s an issue that played out earlier this year when state officials launched one of the largest tax preparation fraud investigations in Georgia history. According to the state Department of Revenue, a Hapeville tax preparer inflated the refunds due to potentially thousands of her clients and is accused of defrauding them through stolen refunds or bogus investments.

“If the person who does your hair and nails is regulated, why wouldn’t the person who prepares your taxes be regulated?” said Liz Coyle, the executive director of consumer watchdog Georgia Watch.

It’s just the latest front in a battle that has played out for decades in this state and nationally, with pushes to expand professional licensing as well as cut it. Just this year, Georgia added a new profession to its field of those who must be licensed, one that had a very specific audience: breastfeeding mothers.

Others say the last thing Georgia needs is more regulation.

A balancing act

Republicans in the Georgia Legislature have long maintained that less regulation means a better business climate, an argument that came into play this year when some complained as the General Assembly voted for the first time ever to regulate “lactation consultants” who help nursing mothers.

Nationally, there has been an uptick over time in the number of professions that now require licenses. But for many policymakers, it is a balancing act that can be difficult to get right.

In the case of tax preparers, while some consumer advocates want them to come under the state’s regulatory umbrella, a number of lawmakers said they didn’t see a need because they felt the system already in place worked: Agencies such as the state Department of Revenue can use the law to catch bad guys while promoting consumer awareness and education.

“We know that there are people out there that are sort of gaming the system or taking advantage of taxpayers,” said state Rep. David Knight, R-Griffin, who is also a certified public accountant. The tax returns at issue in the investigation, he said, were not complex or hard to do. Rather, unscrupulous preparers preyed on unsuspecting people.

“They’re bad people, and we’re not going to catch them by testing whether they’re competent,” Knight said. “You can’t regulate people who are already intentionally doing bad stuff.”

And even those professionals who are already required to be licensed in Georgia say it can often feel like a regulatory maze that can sometimes be difficult to navigate.

‘An undue burden’

Paying someone to design a fabulous new yard, for example, seems like a simple thing. Georgia law, however, bars anyone but a registered landscape architect from actually selling a design plan to a homeowner (under state law, contractors who perform design services cannot charge for it although they can charge for installation).

Registered landscape architects must pass a national and state examination to be licensed in Georgia. And depending on what other services you may want done, your contractor may need multiple separate licenses — both professional ones and ones through the state Agriculture Department — if they want to also handle their own plants, apply lawn pesticides or install low-voltage irrigation systems.

For some, it’s not worth it. Clinton C. Cenac, who runs a popular landscape design and maintenance company in Atlanta, has a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from Louisiana State University but does not have a landscape architecture license in Georgia.

“The last time I took the exam was in 1990, I believe,” Cenac said. “I was fresh out of school and did not pass the exam. I never went back to take it again. However, anyone can practice landscape design and not have a landscape architectural license. Ethically, you cannot call yourself a landscape architect if you do not have a license, but you can call yourself a landscape designer and perform the same type of work.”

Hairstylists, nail technicians and skin care specialists face several hundred to thousands of hours of schooling or apprenticeships, with some required to pass both written and practical exams. Those practicing in the field said Georgia has among the strictest cosmetology licensing rules in the country, sometimes making it hard to keep up.

Atlanta’s Kristen Eber, a licensed esthetician in Georgia since 2002, recently opened The Rosefinch Spa — an opening that was briefly delayed when her application to the state’s cosmetology board was initially denied because she didn’t specifically have the word “shop” or “salon” in her business name. It was only after she spent time on the phone with a patient customer service representative that they both figured out she just needed to write “shop” on her state board application (rather than amend all her legal documents for the business).

“The rule changes can be very, very arbitrary,” Eber said. “When the field inspectors show up, they’re actually very nice. And I respect that they have a very important job to do, which is protecting the consumers.”

Georgia Watch’s Coyle said it made sense if “the state would be stepping back and looking at who is licensed, who doesn’t need to be licensed and what are the best mechanisms to do that.”

“Professions who really affect people’s lives should have enough scrutiny,” Coyle said. “Review it and make sure we’re not having an undue burden on some professions but not enough on others.”

Lewis Massey, a former Georgia secretary of state who led an unsuccessful effort to reduce state licensing boards, said Georgia would benefit if it revisited the issue. “Before any new board is added, you ought to have a very extensive study of why it’s needed,” Massey said.

‘It won’t kill people’

The White House Council of Economic Advisers just last year released a study that found more than one-quarter of U.S. workers now require a license to do their jobs, with the share of workers licensed at the state level rising fivefold since the 1950s.

According to the study, licensing requirements can make it harder for lower-income people to get a job given the cost of educational requirements and fees, and they can also push wages lower for unlicensed workers and increase costs for consumers.

Most agree, however, that jobs that deal directly with public health and safety should require some sort of license.

“When we are looking at regulation as it relates to patient care, that’s a whole different issue,” said state House Health and Human Services Chairwoman Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, who battled for several years before finally winning passage early this spring for the lactation consultants licensing bill.

It made Georgia only the second state in the nation to license the consultants, who are often called in when mothers either begin to have trouble breastfeeding their newborns or have stopped altogether — something the American Academy of Pediatrics said can increase a child’s risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome and other health problems.

Federal law requires coverage for lactation services, but many insurance companies will only pay for the services of licensed health care professionals. The academy said the lack of insurance reimbursement has made what’s known as “clinical breastfeeding care” too expensive for many to pay on their own.

“I’m not the type to over-regulate, but we’re talking about a child’s start to life,” Cooper said. “When you look at a tax preparer, while no one wants to get in trouble with the IRS, it won’t kill people.”

A spokesman for the state Revenue Department said the agency is not seeking any sort of legislation that would regulate tax preparers next tax season. Some have also questioned the effectiveness of a federal effort launched last year to track tax preparers, something Boyd Search, CEO of the Georgia Society of Certified Public Accountants, said his industry was monitoring.

“The IRS has launched a federal tax preparer registration program, which is currently in limbo, and some expect taxpayer advocates in Congress to take further action,” Search said. “In the interim, the Georgia Society of CPAs is participating in the conversations, at both the state and federal level, related to tax preparer issues.”

But, “as a principal, we do not believe simply requiring a form of registration does anything to further protect the public from unscrupulous or unqualified preparers,” Search said. “CPAs and other qualified tax professionals have a background built on the fundamentals of education, lifelong learning and adherence to rigorous ethical standards.”

‘A false sense of security’

Thirty years ago, in a still-ongoing effort to stop over-regulation, the state created something called the Georgia Occupational Regulation Review Council to review any legislation proposing to license or certify occupations and professions not currently regulated in the state. Its recommendations do not bind state lawmakers, although they do carry weight and are often followed.

Most recently, the council in May turned down a proposal to license durable medical equipment suppliers in Georgia, such as those that sell or rent out medical oxygen tanks or chair lifts. The reasons why would cheer free-market advocates: There was no documented proof of a problem due to lack of employee screening, poor customer service or product support; and there were already other means of protection for customers.

It’s not just a Georgia issue.

In Congress, Republican U.S. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska have introduced legislation targeting how the District of Columbia licenses some professions after learning that someone looking to work as a shoe shiner must have four different licenses and pay at least $337 to get them.

Both have said the bill would be a new model for states looking to do something similar, a refrain that resonates for some here in Georgia. They say there are alternatives to professional licensing that can include voluntary certification through professional associations and third-party consumer organizations such as the Better Business Bureau or Angie’s List.

“Just because you have a license doesn’t mean you can’t harm someone,” said Kelly McCutchen, the president of the conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation. “We’re not trying to say we need to outlaw licensing. But we also shouldn’t create a false sense of security.”