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Odd allies seeking changes to Nebraska's job-licensing rules

Odd allies seeking changes to Nebraska's job-licensing rules.

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska's job-licensing requirements will face renewed scrutiny in next year's legislative session if a lawmaker and two unlikely allies have their way, but their plans could still face resistance from industries the state regulates.

Lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts targeted the state's occupational licensing rules earlier this year, arguing that some create needless barriers for people who want to launch their own businesses.

They ended this year's session with a handful of changes, but state Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete is pushing for a more sweeping approach next year — and she's taking her campaign on the road.

"We ought to encourage people to be entrepreneurs, and sometimes licensing holds them back," Ebke said.

Nebraska has roughly 200 professions with mandatory state licenses, ranging from massage therapists and potato shippers to doctors and school bus drivers. Combined, they account for nearly one-quarter of the state's workforce.

Ebke will travel to Lincoln, Lexington, Norfolk and Omaha to pitch her idea directly to the public, starting Tuesday. At her side will be the Platte Institute, a right-leaning group that advocates for free markets and lower taxes, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, an organization generally aligned with liberal causes.

The groups are joining forces to back a bill that would require regular reviews of all state job-licensing requirements to determine if they're still necessary. The bill calls for "the least restrictive regulation" to protect public safety. It also would give residents with a criminal history the chance to get professional licenses if they're qualified.

"This is an issue that brings people together, left, right and center," said Adam Weinberg, a spokesman for the Platte Institute. "Often, the people who pay the price for the excessive licensing burden are those who are least able to afford it."

Weinberg said the issue is particularly important because Nebraska's economy increasingly relies on services rather than goods, creating more opportunities for individuals to launch their own businesses.

He said regulations are important to protect public safety, but sometimes industries use costly fees, licenses and training requirements to keep out potential competitors.

"You have a very small number of industry incumbents who don't want to see those regulations changed because they're profiting from them," Weinberg said.

Ebke and the groups will make their first presentation at the Platte Institute's annual legislative summit on Tuesday in Lincoln.

For the ACLU of Nebraska, relaxing job-licensing restrictions could mean more work opportunities for recently released convicts who learned a trade in prison. Those with jobs are less likely to reoffend and exacerbate the state's prison overcrowding, said Danielle Conrad, the group's executive director.

"For someone with a criminal conviction to be a productive member of our community, they need to be able to fully participate in our economy and workforce," Conrad said. "Nebraska's existing professional licensing structure is full of potential barriers for those who have paid their debt to society."

Some industry officials welcomed the changes proposed in this year's session. Lawmakers eliminated a $20 license requirement for car sellers that critics said was redundant and overhauled state banking regulations criticized as out of date, among other changes.

Other groups, such as potato shippers, said the taxes imposed on them are important because they help pay for research and promote the industry.

Ebke said the changes were good, but argued they amount to "a very little nibble at the apple." In some cases, Ebke said the state could relax regulations by requiring entrepreneurs to register their business with the state instead of having to pay a fee and take a test to get a license.

Ebke said she plans to designate her bill as priority legislation, increasing the odds it will get debated in the 2018 session.

Despite the push, the plan is likely to face resistance from some professions the state regulates.

Job-licensing requirements are crucial for public safety in many fields, said Steve Simpson, a spokesman for the Elevator Constructors Local 28, an Omaha-based trade union.

Simpson said a meatpacking plant in northeast Nebraska had a near-fatal accident recently because of an unlicensed maintenance worker who didn't know all the codes necessary to repair an elevator.

When the worker climbed on the elevator's roof, Simpson said the elevator started moving and knocked him off balance. Simpson said the man fell backward onto the roof, but would have gotten crushed between the elevator and the shaft if he had fallen forward.

"That's why we have licensing," Simpson said. "How is killing someone going to create a job?"

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