Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove in committee at the Capitol on Monday, March 5, 2018. Greene sponsored a resolution that would have protected Utahns against government infringement “on the individual, inalienable right of the people to pursue an honest trade, vocation, occupation, or career … ”

Editor’s note: This column has been rewritten to reflect updated, but as-yet unpublished, figures from the Institute for Justice.

Utah lawmakers like to talk about the need to get government out of the lives of average citizens, but they just whiffed on a great opportunity to take a decisive step in that direction — an unfortunate decision after recent progress.

Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, sponsored a resolution that would have asked Utah voters to approve a simple amendment to the state Constitution. It would have protected Utahns against government infringement “on the individual, inalienable right of the people to pursue an honest trade, vocation, occupation, or career … ”

The only exceptions would be for narrow requirements that directly protect public health and safety.

It failed miserably in the House Judiciary Committee, rejected by a 7-3 vote after a lot of blather from opponents about the harm it would do.

Some lawmakers, Greene told me afterward, “like to say they’re for limited government and less regulation, but when you present them with (a way to make that happen) they get a little bit squeamish.”

That doesn't mean Utah hasn't made good strides in recent years. A constitutional amendment would have added momentum to that progress.

If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, especially in a state where unemployment is at a scant 3.1 percent, you should consider how much better things could be.

The Institute for Justice ranks Utah as the 24th “most extensively and onerously licensed state for moderate-income occupations.”

What this means is that if you want to provide for your family in any of a variety of moderate-income professions, from upholsterer to commercial paint contractor, Big Brother will force you to meet a list of requirements before you may receive a license to work.

And the thing is, most other states don’t even license upholsterers and commercial painters, nor any of a list of other occupations Utah government feels the need to get its hands on. Nearly 24 percent of Utah’s workforce is required to have a license. A sample of moderate-income occupations shows an average requirement of 117 calendar days of education and experience and $292 in fees.

Many of these requirements exist specifically to keep the people currently in those professions from facing too much competition, which effectively makes it harder for people to find work, just as it limits innovations and raises consumer prices.

That figure dropped significantly last year when Utah reduced its licensing requirements for contractors, eliminating two exams and dropping a two-year experience requirement. That move dropped the state from a 13th place ranking for most burdensome licensing laws for moderate-income occupations to 50th, just behind best-in-the-nation Nebraska.

Still, it licenses too many professions.

Lee McGrath, senior legislative counsel in the Minnesota office of the Institute for Justice, which focuses on limiting government power and promoting personal freedoms, told me, “No evidence exists that these government requirements protect consumers.” In the age of the smartphone, anyone can research a contractor’s reputation in a matter of seconds.

How does a state like Utah become mired in such regulation? That’s easy to answer. People already working in professions approach legislators and request laws that set licensing standards. Because the only opponents are people who sometime in the future may want to enter the field, lawmakers find it easy to comply.

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This year, Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake, succeeded in passing a bill that would reduce the hours it takes to train for a private investigator’s license from 10,000 to 5,000, and it would lower the minimum age. That was another step in the right direction.

Utah made headlines six years ago when an immigrant from Sierra Leone challenged the requirement of 2,000 hours of training to become a hair braider. She won, leading some to believe the days of onerous licensing were numbered.

That's taking a long time, however. A constitutional amendment would help.

Greene says he’s not giving up. Maybe next year he can persuade enough of his conservative colleagues that the state would have much to gain by allowing more competition.