For two years, Gov. Pete Ricketts has tried to cut down on excessive state license requirements.

It is not easy. It takes bulldogs and horse sense to dent the bureaucracy, and, in the case of massaging horses, it took a highly determined woman.

For two years in speeches around the state, Ricketts pointed at license requirements in such occupations as audiology, cosmetology, auto sales and banking. Introducing real-life examples, Ricketts cited restrictions that kept Nebraskans from pursuing careers.

There are licenses for shampooers, pest control applicators, skincare specialists and barbers. A license was required to braid hair until the state legislature unanimously repealed it in 2016.

Violators face steep fines for operating without a license, according to a study by George Mason University.

A year ago, Sen. Mike Groene added horse massage to the list. That license requirement became known across Nebraska and much of the nation.

There are about 200 occupational licenses in Nebraska – affecting nearly 25% of all jobs, Ricketts said. Many of the steep requirements protect the establishment and eliminate competition.

Some examples of excessive requirements:

• An athletic trainer must have 1,460 days (4 years) of education and experience. That is nearly 46 times the amount of training required for an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT),  arguably a more vital profession.

• Barbers and cosmetologists are subject to nearly 15 months more training than EMTs, according to a study by George Mason University.

• Audiologists needed two separate licenses to practice.

• School bus drivers needed two permits.

• A license was required to sell cars.

• A veterinarian license was required to massage a horse. A veterinarian license requires nearly a decade of higher education.

But, sparked by the persistence of a woman from Arnold, the veterinary license requirement was later reduced to a human massage therapy license, which was an improvement, but wasn’t all that great. A human massage therapy license requires 1,000 hours of training and costs more than $15,000, according to the Platte Institute, a conservative think-tank.

With a push by Sen. Mike Groene, this year the legislature eliminated all license requirements for equine massage, in LB 596.

It took two years for Groene to convince the legislature, but his bill drew steady support, thanks in part to Ricketts’ speeches across the state about onerous license requirements.

As LB 596 came to the forefront of debate, it was widely reported in the national press and as faraway as the London Times. The story conjured images of western women battling government and caring for rodeo and ranch horses.

The story also sparked a preponderance of puns.

“Naaaay,” one state senator quipped during debate.

“Nebraska stops horsing around,” Forbes magazine said when the bill was signed.

Sen. Ernie Chambers, a bulldog of the legislature, initially scoffed at Groene’s bill, but he later changed his stand.

Sen. John Keuhn of Heartwell, a veterinarian, spoke on the floor. He said it is ridiculous that anyone, no matter how heavy they are, can ride a horse, but someone who wants to massage the horse’s muscles has to get a license.

Kuehn pointed out that the reason for the license in the first place was to protect veterinarians and stifle competition, to the detriment of people and animals.

His floor speech secured Chambers’ support. Kuehn moved to remove all license requirements in the bill, and senators overwhelmingly agreed.

Horse massages can now be freely given.

In the end, Chambers facetiously added  a simple amendment — specifying that cats and dogs can be massaged without a license too.

Chambers was poking fun at Groene, who can also be a bulldog in the legislature. But Chambers genuinely praised the bill too, comparing animal massage to the work of a saint.

“This is something sought by some women who are able, due to manipulations with their hands, to ease pains, improve circulation and assist animals who need this kind of ministration in order to function,” Chambers said.

He cited Francis of Assisi, a brother to all living creatures, and he noted that Francis of Assisi is the namesake of Pope Francis.

Chambers credited Groene for “navigating the narrow pathway” to the bill’s passage and said the bill brought “a little bit of peace in the valley” of the legislature.

The debate also drew widespread attention to heavy-handed license requirements.

With Ricketts’ signature on April 18, Nebraska became the 14th state to eliminate a license for horse massage, joining the neighboring states of Kansas and Wyoming.

Although heavy handed license requirements can be entrenched in bureaucracy, they do not seem to be favored by either political party. They are not Republican nor Democrat measures.

For instance, during the Obama administration, the Department of the Treasury, together with the Council of Economic Advisers and the Department of Labor, issued a licensing report that concluded: “Most research does not find that licensing improves quality or public health and safety.”

A common justification for licenses is that they uphold “quality or public health and safety.” But the reality is different.

 

Woman who pushed hardest

In 2012, the Bulletin told the story about the impossibility of obtaining a horse massage license in Nebraska, after meeting Karen Hough, who lives on a farm near Arnold with her husband Bob.

We met at a campaign gathering in Stapleton for Sen. Deb Fischer, who was running for the U.S. Senate.

Hough confronted Fischer, asking for her help. Fischer said there was nothing she could do then, because the legislature was not in session and her term was over.

But Hough continued to explain the situation, and the reasons why she was upset. She only wanted some part-time work in what she believed was a land of opportunity. She spoke clearly and persistently, and when the gathering was over, we asked Hough to tell us her story.

Hough said she had taken training on her own initiative and massaged a few horses for 4-H, until she received a “cease and desist” order from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. The DHHS order threatened a $25,000 fine and up to 20 years in prison if she kept massaging without a veterinary license.

Hough, who was near retirement, bristled and battled for several months to change the requirement, but she did not massage horses on the sly. She told 4-H club members that “in Nebraska, we don’t break laws, we work to change them.”

She contacted state officials for several months, finally getting the license requirement lowered from a vet’s license to a human massage license, until she ran out of steam, time and patience.

A year ago, as Ricketts soliticed help from the Legislature to reduce such requirements, Groene took up the cause after reading the Bulletin article and talking to Hough.

 

Courage

On April 18, after Groene steered the bill through the legislature, Ricketts signed it into law.

Hough praised Groene, Ricketts and other allies. She called Groene “the best representative ever.” She said Ricketts truly cares about the people he represents.

Later, she was interviewed by Forbes magazine. The article gave her due credit, along with another pun, “The bill was spurred by Karen Hough.”

Hough said it was sometimes a scary process. Once someone told her, concerning DHHS, “You can’t mess with these people. They can destroy you.”

She stayed determined, along with a handful of others who spoke up for the bill, including Kerry Kelsey of North Platte.

Hough said senators who spoke up for the bill represent “the common sense that says you can’t keep spending like drunken sailors and lower taxes.”

 

In future: Regular reviews

Since Ricketts began speaking up, the legislature made a handful of changes.

They not only repealed the license for hair braiders, they repealed a license for car salesmen. They eliminated a annual $5 license fee for school bus drivers.

They streamlined requirements for nurses and nurse practitioners, who are badly needed in rural Nebraska. They eliminated a requirement that audiologists have two separate licenses to sell hearing aides.

Sen. Laura Epke of Crete, a registered libertarian, is another fighter in the battle to reduce government overreach.

Most importantly, at Epke’s insistence, the legislature set up a process to remain vigilant in the search for excessive, redundant license requirements.

Under Epke’s broad reform bill, LB 299, each of the legislature’s standing committees will review and analyze occupational regulations under its jurisdiction — including regulations in Health and Human Services, Education, Banking, Insurance, Transportation, Telecommunications and other professions.

The legislature’s standing committees will review about 20% of state licenses each year for five years.

Each committee will analyze whether a regulation uses the least restrictive method of accomplishing its goal, submit an annual report and recommend eliminations to regulations.

That oversight bill passed on a vote of 45-1.

 

(This report was first published in the Bulletin’s April 25 print edition. – Editor)