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Texas likes to tout its business-friendly environment, but when it comes to government permission to perform your profession, Texas lags behind other states. Conservatives have tried for several sessions to undo some of the burdensome barriers to entry that occupational licenses pose on business within the state. This session, one of the first bills to be considered in committee on the topic paints a picture of the argument at large.

On Monday, El Paso Democrat State Rep. Mary Gonzalez presented House Bill 32 before the Texas House Committee on Agriculture that would require citizens to pay the government for permission … to purchase pecans.

Gonzalez stated that due to similar laws taking effect in January of this year in neighboring New Mexico, a ring of pecan thieves has migrated across the state line to steal pecans from West Texas pecan growers and buyers, and the only way to curtail the theft is to pass the laws here.

According to additional testimony, the five western-most Texas counties account for roughly half of all of Texas’ pecan production. Now, buyers in the portion of the state responsible for most of the production may have to pay the government for permission to conduct their business.

In 2017, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit free-market think tank, published the following about occupational licensing in their Policymaker’s Guide:

“Even if occupational licensing’s supposed advantages had not been sapped by innovation, it would still pose a series of difficulties worth reckoning with. The larger economic costs associated with licensing—reduced job growth and deadweight loss—negatively affect the living standards of all Texans.”

Gonzalez’s bill carves out 249 counties, but she said in testimony she would have loved to have provided a bill that would take effect statewide, barring political obstacles affiliated with doing so.

Several farmers and public citizens made the commute to Austin to testify against the bill, saying mechanisms are already in place statewide and on the local level to ensure cooperation between producers, buyers, and law enforcement in curtailing theft of the product. Furthermore, it was said that the bill would do little to combat theft in the five counties where the bill is proposed to be enacted.

One such farmer was Winston Millican. Millican is a fifth-generation pecan farmer from San Saba, Texas, the pecan capital of the world. Millican testified that he considered much of what the bill would do would fall into redundancy of the federal marketing order and “rather than using state funds for that, we can do it on the local level and check out the illegal buying stations.”

Farmer Will Cullers spoke against the bill before the committee also, addressing educational requirements for the industry on pecan weevils, a pest that feeds and lays eggs in the shuck and shell of pecans. He was concerned the bill would do little or nothing to deter the infiltration of pecan weevils and that the industry was already privy to the problem the insects posed to the crop. “We try to not involve the government any more than we have to,” Cullers said in closing.

Also testifying against the bill, and occupational licensing broadly, was Arif Panju, managing attorney for the Texas Office of the Institute for Justice. “Texas is known for regulating with a lighter hand, one exception to that is through occupational licensing,” Panju said. “Licensing is not a binary choice. It is the most strict form of regulation,” he concluded.

As the Legislature continues to move bills through the legislative process, hearing testimony before committee and voting bills to the floor for consideration, occupational licensing reform will continue to be a battle between free-market conservatives and interests seeking to grow the heavy hand and influence of government in the affairs of job creators and small business.