- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 13, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A Nebraska group said Tuesday that it’s working with its founder, Gov. Pete Ricketts, to eliminate what it considers cumbersome job-licensing requirements that create a drag on the state economy.

The Platte Institute for Economic Research unveiled a campaign that will evaluate the nearly 200 occupations in Nebraska that require a license. The free-market think tank has met with Ricketts to craft a package of licensing changes for next year’s legislative session.

“Occupational licensing is the biggest labor force issue in our country today,” affecting one in four workers, said Jim Vokal, the group’s CEO. “… It’s such a big issue that Nebraskans need permission from the government to work nearly 200 different types of jobs.”

Vokal said Nebraska needs to make its job licensing requirements similar to or less restrictive than those of nearby states, and should take steps to recognize similar professional licenses from other states.

The “Strong Jobs Nebraska” campaign features entrepreneurs whose businesses struggled because of state or local regulations. The group includes a banquet hall owner who tried to open a food truck business in Lincoln; a reflexology specialist who chose to work in Council Bluffs, Iowa, instead of Omaha; and a massage therapist who chose Iowa over Nebraska because of regulations.

Some industry leaders say the regulations protect consumers and ensure a level playing field with other businesses. In 2013, Lincoln city officials proposed new rules that would let food trucks park at some downtown meters. Currently, they’re restricted to private property.

The Nebraska Restaurant Association objected, arguing that food truck vendors could park right next to brick-and-mortar establishments that have to pay taxes and fees and comply with city building codes.

“We’re not necessarily opposed to food trucks,” said Jim Partington, the restaurant association’s executive director. “They fill a legitimate need. But they should maintain the same standards of food safety and comply with safety regulations. And they shouldn’t be able to park outside a brick-and-mortar restaurant that’s paying thousands of dollars a year in property taxes.”

Food truck vendors also scoffed at the plan, which would have required them to deal with more fees, paperwork, insurance requirements and access to a limited number of public spots. The proposal would have imposed a 24-hour time limit to keep them from hogging a parking spot.

Licensing reforms play an important role in keeping more college graduates in Nebraska, said Sen. Nicole Fox of Omaha.

“They’re leaving for work in other states where licensing requirements in other states are less cumbersome,” said Fox, who will become a lobbyist for the Platte Institute after leaving office in January.

Fox pointed to a law she sponsored earlier this year that eliminated licensing requirements for natural hair braiding services. The issue came to her attention from a constituent who had opened a hair braiding business without a cosmetology license. In Nebraska, the license requires 2,100 hours of training at a cost of roughly $20,000.

“Now, instead of the state of Nebraska considering me a felon, I am a hair-braiding entrepreneur,” said Brandy McMorris of Omaha, who braided hair for money before realizing that she had violated state law.

The Platte Institute was founded by Ricketts before he became governor, but Ricketts has said he cut ties with the group before he was elected.

A spokesman for Ricketts said the governor will unveil several new proposals in his annual address to lawmakers, “some of which will aim at cutting red tape and reducing the size of state government.”

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