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Regulate This

Should the state be the watchdog of hair braiders and interior designers?

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State certification levels the field for interior designers, says Christopher Good of KSA Interiors: “Without regulation, you can’t play the game.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • State certification levels the field for interior designers, says Christopher Good of KSA Interiors: “Without regulation, you can’t play the game.”

It looked like the least controversial cut on Gov. Bob McDonnell’s reform list. As part of his efforts to slim the state’s $39 billion annual budget, last week McDonnell proposed to deregulate three specific professions: hair braiding, interior design and mold remediation. The state no longer would license or certify people in those professions.

You might think the braiders, designers and remediators would be happy. Who wants more bureaucracy in their lives? But some of them are protesting the change, stirring up a small but fierce debate about government intervention in the free market.

“As a conservative, I understand the desire to deregulate,” says Christopher Good, an associate principal with Glen Allen design firm KSA Interiors. But if the state government steps back, he says, the profession suffers. “We’ll be essentially barred from competition,” he says.

Why? Interior designers who submit drawings for permits must be state-certified. The commonwealth — as well as the federal government and most localities — also requires certification for interior designers to bid on public projects, Good says: “So I assume they’ll have to rewrite that law.” Otherwise, he says, architects — who still are state-regulated — could snap up all the projects that require certification.

There are about 500 certified interior designers in the state and thousands of employees who work with them, Good says. Don’t call them decorators. Interior designers must know about fire codes, the proper placement of emergency exits and other safety practices. If unqualified and uncertified people begin practicing interior design, Good says, “we run the risk of there being catastrophic consequences.”

Highly unlikely, says Robert McNamara, a lawyer with the libertarian Institute for Justice. “There’s absolutely no evidence that anyone has ever been harmed in any way by an unlicensed interior designer,” McNamara says. McDonnell’s commission found “few, if any complaints” in interior design matters and very few regulatory violations.

The nonprofit Institute for Justice has battled interior-design regulation in several states, though not in Virginia. One Florida case is poised to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Who knew this was such a hot issue?

It’s a matter of economic liberty, McNamara says. Entrepreneurship is a fundamental American value, he says, yet requiring state regulation “serves as a way for established, entrenched businesses to keep new people from entering the marketplace.” He argues that interior designers should be able to practice freely without having to get a four-year degree, prove two years’ work experience and pass two exams — which Virginia requires for certification.

The governor’s reform commission originally had proposed to eliminate regulation for landscape architects as well. But after members of the Virginia chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects scurried to plead their case with the governor’s staff, their profession was dropped from the deregulation list.

Polygraph examiners, too, retained their regulated status. Why? “There were compelling reasons related to safety of the citizens of the Commonwealth that justified preserving regulation of landscape architects and polygraph examiners,” McDonnell’s press secretary, Jeff Caldwell, writes in an email. As for mold remediators, the state only began regulating them this year and now will stop.

What about hair braiding, which is regulated for health reasons? Deregulation isn’t a good idea, says hair braiding instructor Dionne James Eggleston, who runs a salon and braiding school on Marshall Street in Richmond as well as a salon in Long Island, N.Y. “People need to be held accountable.”

In the hands of an unregulated, untrained hair braider, clients run the risk of being burned by hot water and “catching different things on their scalp,” Eggleston says. Getting licensed isn’t difficult, she says. After receiving 170 hours of training or an equivalent course, an aspiring Virginia braider must take a written exam on state regulations, sanitation practices and braiding techniques. Eggleston charges $2,000 for the 170-hour course.

“The hair braiding industry poses a minimal risk of public harm,” McDonnell’s commission reported. In the last five years, the commission found, Virginia has fined two hair braiders and one salon, and revoked one license.

The Institute for Justice doesn’t have a beef with basic, brief, health and safety training, McNamara says, nor with regulation of medical professionals. But it’s not the state’s job to make sure ordinary professionals, whether braiders or designers, are “good enough” to get an official stamp of approval. “That’s violating people’s basic right to economic liberty,” he says.

Professional regulation is an old Virginia tradition. One regulatory board, which licenses boat pilots in Virginia’s major shipping lanes, was chartered by the king of England in the 1600s. The state regulates dozens of other professions, including auctioneers, body piercers, boxing promoters, cemetery operators and property managers.

To shave $2 million off the budget, the governor also has proposed consolidating or eliminating dozens of other state boards and commissions. His list includes merging the Seed Potato Board and the Potato Board into “a single, unified Potato Board” to handle all research and regulation of Virginia potatoes. This suggestion has failed to spark any debate — yet. S

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