Sunset laws, statutes that require government programs be reauthorized or shut down automatically after a certain period of time, are an indirect way to roll back needlessly burdensome occupational licensing requirements.
The logic of sunset laws is straightforward: to force a periodic vote on laws that otherwise might persist indefinitely because of inertia. The hope is that when professions are forced to regularly justify the need for licensing, lawmakers will repeal licensing requirements when appropriately persuasive justifications are not forthcoming.
All of this, however, only works if there is a substantive sunset review. Otherwise, a practice of rubber-stamping extensions can develop and nothing really changes.
California, despite having sunset laws for many of its licensing boards, has fallen into this bad equilibrium. Worse, the sunset process can become an excuse not to undertake reforms through other channels. Consider the case of SB 999, which would remove licensing requirements for shampooers and other hair care service providers. Steven Greenhut, writing for Reason, explains.
The main argument that the Assembly Business and Professions Committee Chairman Evan Low (D-San Jose) used to oppose [SB 999] is that the issue can be handled in the forthcoming Sunset Review hearings. The Assembly and Senate business and professions committees hold these annual hearings in the fall to “discuss the performance of the boards and make recommendations for improvements,” according to the legislative website. The term “sunset” comes from the legislation, which would sunset the many boards out of existence unless they justify their existence.
This is one of those cool ideas that sounds much better in theory than in reality. Government agencies should indeed have to explain what they do to stay in business. But California’s Sunset Review process rarely leads to the sunset of anything. S.B. 999’s opponents note that the review led to legislation last year that eliminated the Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind. That was a welcome development, but the elimination of that pointless board was backed by regulators and the industry itself.
The limited success of the sunset review process in California shows the shortcomings of this “cool idea.” Sunset laws are unique because inaction on the part of lawmakers yields reform, whereas reforms like SB 999 need to pass for reformers to succeed. Even so, because the substantive reviews contemplated by sunset laws may not end up happening, more direct approaches like SB 999 still have an important role to play.