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May 21, 2020

Update on the Fight to Protect Responsible Professional Licensing

Following up on a podcast we did in October 2019, we are joined again by Skip Braziel, vice president of state regulation and legislation for the AICPA, and, for the first time, by Veronica Meadows, senior director of strategy for the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards. In this podcast we discuss the ongoing fight to ensure responsible licensing for professions that protect the public interest. We also have valuable updates on a national survey conducted to measure public opinion on professional licensing, and discuss how the coronavirus pandemic has affected this issue.

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By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor

Podcast Transcript

In September of 2019, we met with Skip Braziel, vice president of state regulation and legislation for the AICPA, to discuss attempts by outside parties to deregulate professional licensing, the CPA designation among them. Today, we are back with Skip, along with Veronica Meadows, senior director of strategy for the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards, to dissect the latest developments surrounding the issue, including the effect the coronavirus pandemic has had on public perception of the value of professional licensing.

Skip, for those who missed our previous podcast on this topic, can you fill us in on a little bit of background behind the effort to weaken or eliminate licensing of many professions? Why do the people who support that think it is a good idea?

[Braziel] I've talked a little bit about the historical nature of this discussion. The idea of having less government in our lives is an idea that you can trace its roots back to the very founding of the country, and exactly how much the citizens will allow is a question that we ask literally every day. So, this conversation about professional licensing or deregulating professional licensing is one thread in that conversation.

It's not unusual. If you think about a country that values free markets, free liberty, having limited government, it's not unusual to think that any proposal that would champion having less government in this aspect of our lives, that it's very important, our ability to hold a job, that would be an attractive argument to make.

The problem, from our perspective, is that while there may be some occupations where you need less government involvement or perhaps maybe even no government involvement, the highly technical professions that Veronica and myself, that we represented along with the other technical professions represented and boards represented in the alliance, these are not the professions that you want to have unlicensed. These are not the professions that you want with minimal professional standards. These are the professions that you want the highest, the most rigorous, standards because you're dealing with the health and welfare of the public. We're talking about professions that build and design buildings, or professions that are accountable for the fiscal responsibility of public companies. These are very, very important services that these professionals provided.

We just are concerned when we hear about legislation that suggests that anybody could perform these types of services without any kind of oversight. That concerns us greatly. Again, while we understand the impetus, and again, as citizens of the country, we understand where it comes from. We created ARPL as a voice to push back against any one-size-fits-all prescriptions that would eliminate or erode the standards that have kept these professions strong for over 100 years.

Veronica, from the perspective of the Alliance for Responsible Professional Licensing, or ARPL, as Skip referred to, why is the weakening or eliminating of certain licensing a bad idea, and how would it hurt the public?

[Meadows] Weakening or elimination of licensing just puts the public at risk, especially in highly technical professions that have a direct impact on public health and safety. Our professions oversee the physical integrity of public and private spaces and the fiscal integrity of financial systems.

Eliminating licensing would reduce or eliminate critical training and qualifications necessary for work that directly impacts public health, safety, trust, and welfare. I mean, think about it, errors in designing a bridge or a building or certifying a corporate audit are not small matters. That really can't be remedied by a bad Yelp review. The work of our professions must really be done correctly the first time.

I think what we're seeing right now, particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic response to that, could potentially present other challenges as our states are, as they should be, focused on what they can do to limit the spread of the virus.

How in particular could a weakening of licensing hurt the accounting profession? Obviously, this is going out to accounting professionals. What's the effect there?

[Braziel] CPAs have a long history with high standards, rigorous enforcement of those standards. Those standards have brought not only public comfort, public trust, public safety, but they've brought, I think, clear pathways for professional development for those that enter into this profession. But in addition to that, one of the things that we did, or we pride ourselves on as a profession, is the ability to see around corners.

One of those corners that we saw around a few decades ago was this idea that our professionals should be able to help their clients wherever their clients are. As we live in a more mobile society, that meant that CPAs needed to be more mobile. So we created a system, individual mobility, that allows our professionals to move across state lines, as we used to say, with no notice, no fee, and no escape.

The underlying foundation of that scheme is based on trust between and among the states because all of the states have basically the same licensing standards. So, our concern is, if you start to erode the standards state by state, that erodes the mobility system that we put in place that has worked so well. This isn't a concern just for CPAs. It's a concern for our other colleagues in the alliance. Those representing the engineering profession, the landscape architect profession, and surveyors.

While we may do it in different ways, we all subscribe to the idea of mobility or portability. But we are concerned that if we have this state-by-state approach to eroding the standards, it will erode our ability to maintain public trust while allowing our professionals to move across state lines.

We talked about crossing state lines. What's the current status of legislation on this topic? Are there other parts of the country that are further along in their efforts to weaken licensing? What's the status there?

[Meadows] I would say, yes, there are states and jurisdictions that are further along in their efforts to weaken licensing. I think we've seen states that aren't differentiating between the occupations and the professions that have a more significant impact on public health and safety. But honestly, right now, state legislatures, if they're even still in session, are rightly focused on COVID-19 response measures.

What we're seeing, and rightly so, are governors and legislatures enacting temporary measures to ensure that medical professions and first responders are available wherever they're needed across the country. I think our concern, and what we're really watching closely, is with executive orders that are written very broadly and not necessarily limited to the healthcare professions. We just want to make sure and caution states against using these too-broad-brush approaches in easing requirements because doing so could potentially create a whole new set of problems related to professional mobility after this crisis is over.

The other thing is I think we can't really lose sight of the fact that licensure reform issues will still be important once we get past this crisis. Again, states just need to be cautious not to implement things as they're considering easing requirements for the mobility of health care professionals to maximize the virus response. We just don't want to see these emergency measures create more problems for public safety after this crisis is over.

In February, a national survey on this topic was released. It was conducted by Benenson Strategy Group. It sought to understand public opinion toward professional licensing standards. What did the results of that survey tell you about general public opinion at that time?

[Braziel] So, we commissioned Benenson Strategy Group to do this poll. We felt it was important in a public debate to get the perspective from the public. The best way to do that is to conduct a random poll. We selected 1,000 likely voters to answer some key questions around professional licensing, how they may test some of the ideas that we thought were salient in this debate, test some of our concerns, and to see if what we were proposing was valid, as it relates to ensuring that there are strong, professional, rigorous standards in place.

What we discovered is, in our minds not unremarkable, that the public does really support the idea of strong professional licensing. We had over 75% of the voters say it was important to ensure qualifications for professionals in certain industries. We had more than two-thirds of the voters say consumers are best protected by a licensing board system that regulates education, exam, and experience. So, the three Es. We had over 56%, I believe, of respondents say that they strongly believe that having licensing boards in place to oversee the rigorous standards that professionals must go through was a positive. We had 71% of the voters say that professional licensing should be required unless it can be proven that eliminating that licensing would not have a negative impact on public health and safety.

These responses are both comforting and reassuring because many of the proposals that we see go directly at these responses. For example, when I talk about 71% of respondents saying that you should first prove that eliminating licenses will not have a negative impact before removing those standards, that's just the opposite of the proposals that we're seeing. In the proposals that we're seeing, they're placing that burden on the boards to demonstrate that if you keep it, nothing bad will happen.

It's an amazing turnaround from our perspective. It really reinforces the idea that the public does believe in rigorous standards. They understand the value even if they may not necessarily understand every nuance and how the standards work and relate to their daily lives. They do understand what it means to have a certified public accountant, what it means to have a professionally licensed landscape architect, what it means to have a professional license engineer. They understand those basic concepts. I think that's a really good place for us to start as a new burgeoning coalition trying to promote the idea of rigorous standards in these highly technical professions.

Did the survey say anything in particular about public thoughts regarding licensing in the accounting profession?

[Braziel] The poll was broad. So, we didn't focus on any one particular profession within our group. But our group, again, is based on highly technical professionals. We did ask, specifically, about professional licensing and even more specifically about highly technical professions. So, we feel confident in the results that we got that they will translate across all the professions represented in our group, including CPAs.

What are the next steps for ARPL as they look to continue this fight against licensing deregulation? I know you've talked about a lot of the concentration right now is on COVID matters. But what's being done as we speak?

[Meadows] There's a lot to combat and fight against. I think what's more important is we're really looking for the opportunities to be helpful. ARPL is a great partner for policy makers to help develop solutions that are right-sized and balanced. I think one of the big ways that we are working in this effort is around the idea of making it easier for professionals to move across state lines.

This is one of the key arguments that those on the opposition are very much clinging to and being able to help professionals move easily across state lines is one of our core values. We do have some concerns about how some lawmakers want to achieve that goal, but we're definitely aligned with the idea that professionals should be permitted to move and practice their professions wherever they want to and wherever their clients need them to.

In fact, right now, we are preparing a paper on best practices specifically on this topic. I think the other point is to really tell our story as often as we can. ARPL, while the alliance itself is made up of the national associations and regulatory associations related to our respective professions, we rely very heavily on our state partners like state chapters to tell this story. We have developed lots of tools and resources to help you do so, to be able to go out and educate and share that valuable message about why our professions should be licensed, the value that license provides to the public, and really the vital role that the state licensing board plays in all of that.

It's been mentioned a few times here. It's impossible not to mention it as we find ourselves in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic as we record this. But is there any way by which the coronavirus has shaped the way the public should be looking at the fight for professional licensing? If nothing else, it seems like the public should be in favor of putting their faith in licensed, knowledgeable professionals right now. Is that something that seems to make sense with what you're seeing?

[Meadows] The reality is, like you said, the coronavirus pandemic has really touched every aspect of all of our lives. Right now, I think, we're all really just focused on doing what we can to limit the spread of the virus. The issues we've been discussing since ARPL launched last year will still be important issues once we get past this virus and state legislators can move past their focus on fighting the virus and really preparing their responses.

Like I said, you're exactly right. The very standards we promote to protect the public, the rigorous education, experience, examination, and knowing that people coming into a jurisdiction are qualified are really why states can feel confident and secure in bringing, for example, health care professionals from other states. They know that these people are qualified to do the job correctly.

While the work is certainly different within our technical professions, the same principles apply. If CPAs, landscape architects, engineers or surveyors, or architects are crossing state lines to do their work, those states want to know those people are coming in qualified and have been properly vetted.

We anticipate that there will be a renewed and maybe even slightly intensified effort that will try to use economic recovery to reinforce their arguments for weakening or eliminating licensure requirements. ALEC is already introduced. It is part of their recommended policies for states, but states can enact. So, we need to be very clear that responsible professional licensing is critical to protecting the public. It's not about keeping people out of the jobs, but it's about making sure that people who are in the jobs, who are doing their jobs, are qualified and able to do so in the public's interest.

For PICPA members, CPAs, other concerned parties that are interested in aiding this effort, what's the best way they can go about it?

[Braziel] Get engaged with your state societies. They're the best resource that we have to tell our stories in all these different individual states. ARPL is a wonderful coalition. I enjoy working with Veronica and the rest of our partners. But there's only so many of us. Our reach is limited, but we are at our strongest when we leverage our state partnerships.

ARPL is responsible for building out the architecture and the content to tell this really positive narrative about professional licensing. We rely on the members that we represent, a number that is over 700,000, to really amplify the story and the messages. That's really, really powerful.

So, I would just, again, encourage all of you listening today, stay close to your state society or societies. I don't know. Maybe we have a broader reach than just Pennsylvania, but wherever you're licensed, stay close to your state societies. We are a driving messaging tool to them to help you tell your story. We are here as a resource if you have questions or concerns. Again, I just can't echo enough the idea that our state societies, our state partners, are our best resource in this effort.

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Podcast transcripts are provided as a summary of the conversation and have been lightly edited for the written medium. The transcript is not a verbatim representation of the interview.
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