‘Consumer Choice’ Bills: Not the Best Choice

March/April 2019

NSPE Today: Policy Perspectives
‘Consumer Choice’ Bills: Not the Best Choice

BY STEPHANIE HAMILTON

At the end of 2018, NSPE experienced a significant victory for professional engineering licensure. Acting on a recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board, the state of Massachusetts eliminated its licensing exemption for gas utility engineers. Like so many other victories, though, this was the result of a tragedy—a gas pipeline explosion that destroyed several homes and killed one person. In its investigation of the Merrick Valley explosions, the NTSB took issue with the licensing exemption for public utility engineers. NSPE conferred with NTSB investigators, providing answers and information regarding licensure exemptions. In its final report, the NTSB even quoted NSPE’s exemptions position statement.

Despite this important change, numerous threats to licensure remain. This year, there’s a dramatic uptick in an especially troubling type of threat, most-commonly referred to as “consumer choice.”

What is Consumer Choice?

The basic premise of consumer choice is this: Any person can practice any occupation without a license, as long as consumers consent to using an unlicensed person. It means a person without an engineering license could provide services that otherwise require a license, as long as the consumer knows that person is unlicensed.

Consumer choice bills are written and supported by activists and lawmakers who, ostensibly, want to make it easier for people to get and keep good-paying jobs, and reduce costs to consumers. They either don’t believe any real harm can come from allowing unlicensed persons to practice, or they believe market competition is sufficient to protect public health and safety.

The model for consumer choice bills comes from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative nonprofit that offers model language on a number of issues. Though ALEC is a conservative organization driven by “free market” principles, consumer choice regimes are supported by libertarian organizations as well.

What Does Consumer Choice Look Like?

We assume that most legislators who author or support consumer choice bills have a specific scenario in mind—a one-on-one interaction between the consumer and a provider of a relatively safe service, like a manicure or haircut. In this scenario, the consumer goes to the manicurist, who gives the consumer a written disclosure that the manicurist is unlicensed. By signing the disclosure, the consumer willingly accepts the risk of doing business with her. The consumer gets her nails done, the manicurist gets paid, and they go their separate ways. No harm done.

However, there are potential, and potentially disastrous, unintended consequences with consumer choice bills.

First, in several of these bills, “consumer” is not defined. Leaving it open to interpretation creates a huge loophole that could put the public at serious risk. For example, if a state decides that the “consumer” is the person or entity who pays for a service, does that mean a city government doesn’t have to tell the general public that it hired an unlicensed person to design and build a bridge? Does it mean a builder can hire an unlicensed “architect” to design an apartment complex?

Second, not all consumer choice bills detail how the unlicensed disclosure has to be made. Is it possible that a state will decide that a plaque on a bridge is sufficient “disclosure” to the general public that the bridge was designed or constructed by unlicensed engineers or architects? Some of these bills (like West Virginia House Bill 2697) state that placing the notification on a website is sufficient disclosure, which means the consumer doesn’t have to actively acknowledge that he knows he’s using an unlicensed service provider.

How is NSPE Responding?

At NSPE, we are taking several steps, including:

  • Actively tracking consumer choice bills, alerting state society leadership, and offering advocacy support;
  • Strategizing about a broader publicity campaign to educate the general public about the value of licensure, and the tremendous risks consumer choice bills pose;
  • Actively participating in coalitions working to oppose such legislation; and
  • Educating legislators on the potential negative consequences of these bills.

What Can You Do?

Because consumer choice bills are introduced in state legislators, one of the most influential things to do is contact your state representatives and senators. Voice your opposition to antilicensure legislation, either over the phone or, preferably, in person. Educate them on antilicensure risks, as well as the value of licensing professional occupations.

Additionally, consider writing a letter to the editor of your local or regional newspaper (we can help with that!). Post positive social media stories about licensed professionals. Every story we share helps educate the public and increase the public’s value of professional licensure.

NSPE and its members certainly aren’t new to the antilicensure fight; we have been in it for years. With each new threat comes new opportunities. Together we can capitalize on them.

If you’d like to talk more about ways you can be involved, I’m just an email or phone call away! Email shamilton@nspe.org or call 703-684-2844.

Stephanie Hamilton is NSPE’s manager of government relations and advocacy.