*Shoshana Weissmann coauthored this piece.

“Sandy Meadows died alone and in poverty because the State of Louisiana wouldn’t allow her to work in a perfectly harmless occupation.”

So said Clark Neily, who represented Meadows in an unsuccessful attempt to overturn Louisiana’s floristry licensing law back in 2003.

In a nation rife with wacky occupational licensing laws — different states around the country license everything from fortunetellers to frog farmers — Louisiana has stood alone as the only state that mandates a license for putting together a bouquet. Now, nearly 14 years after Meadows’ death, Louisiana may finally be on the brink of overturning this absurd requirement.

After Meadows’ husband passed away in 2000, she had little money or education. But she had a talent with flowers. She found a way to support herself by managing the floral department of a local grocery store — until the Louisiana Horticulture Commission threatened to shut down the store’s floristry operations unless it hired a licensed florist. Meadows tried to obtain a state floristry license five separate times, but she was unable to pass the complicated, subjective practical exam that was part of the licensing requirement.

The exam required applicants to arrange four bouquets in four hours. The results were judged by a panel of licensed Louisiana florists, who all-but-certainly viewed the applicants as competitors that were best kept out of the floristry trade. The passage rates for the exam were below 50 percent; even longtime florists often failed it. One licensed florist in the state described the test as nothing more than a “hazing process.” Ultimately, because she could not pass the exam, the grocery store had to let Meadows go.

Louisiana eventually scrapped the practical portion of the exam — while keeping in place a written test — but the state has remained frustratingly unable to fully repeal the law that many consider the poster child for occupational licensing run amok. Earlier this year, however, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards advocated reforming the state’s onerous occupational licensing regime. He even referenced the floristry license specifically, noting that Louisiana was the only state in the country to have such a law before adding, “I’m not sure why we do that.”

Right on cue, Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, introduced a bill in the Louisiana Legislature that repeals the licensing mandate for florists and removes the requirement that the Horticulture Commission be partially stocked with incumbent florists. Gov. Edwards expressed support for the legislation in his recently-unveiled legislative agenda, which gives the bill strong bipartisan roots.

Occupational licensing is often justified based on health and safety concerns, both for practitioners of the licensed trade as well as consumers. While these concerns can make sense in fields such as medicine, it is difficult to conceptualize any risks inherent in arranging flowers. The fact that all 49 other states lack a floristry licensing regime — as well as any epidemic of flower-related injuries — further suggests that licensing is inappropriate in this field.

This is not to say that the requirement doesn’t have its defenders. Republican Mike Strain, who serves as the elected commissioner of Louisiana’s Agriculture and Forestry Department — the agency tasked with overseeing the state’s floristry licensing regime — has defended the law on consumer protection grounds: “There’s a certain amount of regulation to make sure the public gets what they pay for… [otherwise] you’re going to set up a situation where anybody can open a floral shop and there’s no method to regulate the industry and protect the public.”

This justification is similarly weak. While consumers are occasionally at an information deficit in certain service industries — for example, it would likely be difficult for most patients to select the best treatment option for a particular disease without the advice of a doctor — floristry is relatively straightforward. Picking out a pretty bouquet from the supermarket is not a specialized skill; it’s a task the average consumer is more than qualified to perform.

Louisiana’s floristry license certainly stands out for its one-of-a-kind nature, but needless occupational licensing is a widespread problem. Many other states also have outdated, nonsensical licensing laws on their books that affect practitioners in industries such as cosmetology, barbering, interior design and more. Because each state has different requirements, individuals in these fields often have difficulty moving across state lines and continuing to practice their occupation. More states need to follow Louisiana’s lead in identifying absurd — and sometimes even embarrassing — licensing laws and getting rid of them.

In reflecting on Meadows’ case, Neily later wrote, “Prevented by government from doing the only work she knew, Sandy had no way to make a living. She had no car, no phone and, on the last day I saw her alive, no electricity because she couldn’t afford to pay her utility bill.”

Rep. Emerson’s bill would finish the job that Sandy Meadows’ lawsuit started. While it’s far too late to help Meadows, this much-needed reform would at least provide a glimmer of light in an otherwise tragic story.

Image credit: Africa Studio

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