Dolly Decorator, or: How to Lobby for Laws That Bully Your Competition

03/27/2015 04:55 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2015

The class bully is an archetype of American childhood. Maybe he was the biggest kid in the fifth grade. Maybe she cut class and stole lunch money.

Today, school bullies are more skilled in the digital art of mental abuse, using venues such as Facebook and Instagram to troll their victims.

But grown-ups can be bullies, too.

And some of them use the full weight of the law to inflict pain and suffering on the outsiders they don't want to let in.

Eva Maria Locke knows this all too well. Eva is from Delray Beach, Florida. She has a degree in interior design, and has been approached by friends and acquaintances who want to work with her on design projects. A few years back, she was offered a job revamping a hair salon. Soon after, a friend who practices Chinese medicine reached out about designing a new lobby.

But Eva had to turn down these jobs because she lives in one of just three states that have "practice act" laws on the books, which limit who can practice interior design.

"Florida law says that if you're a registered interior designer, you can perform design services in commercial spaces - but if you're not registered with the state, you can only offer design services in residential spaces," said Ed Nagorsky, general counsel for National Kitchen & Bath Association, a trade group that works in the interior-design industry.

Nagorsky explained that to become registered, prospective designers have to pass the National Council for Interior Design Qualification, or NCIDQ exam. Before you can sit for the test, however, you must have a degree in interior design, complete an internship for two to five years (or more) and pay $1,265 just to take the exam.

"These costs price a lot of people out of the market," Nagorsky said. "That's how existing designers restrict the profession."

These requirements have kept Eva out of a big chunk of potential business. After raising her family, she went back to school in 2005, graduating with her degree in interior design in 2007. After that, she apprenticed under a licensed designer for two years ... until that designer had to close up shop in the wake of the Great Recession. Under Florida law, because Eva earned a two-year degree, she needs four years of apprenticeship work under a licensed designer. That left her two years short in the wake of one of the worst recessions in the country's history, with little hope of finding work that would get her enough apprentice experience to qualify for the exam.

Now she's in limbo - Eva has a client base and the knowledge to do the job well, but Florida's regulations have left her unable to get off the ground. People who favor regulations like the ones that exist in Florida might call Eva a "Dolly Decorator," what Eva described as a derogatory term for unlicensed designers.

"When it suits their interest, pro-regulation people will talk as if there is a clearly recognized distinction between interior design and decoration," said Clark Neily, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice. "It's an ego thing."

The "ego thing" takes on a life of its own in states where interior-design groups like the American Society of Interior Designers, or ASID, try to manipulate the law to limit professional competition. Neily, who represented designers like Eva in a lawsuit over Florida's interior-design title act in 2009, said ASID has a straightforward approach to molding licensing requirements.

First item on the docket is to get a law on the books called a "title act," which establishes the precedent for government involvement and a degree of separation between those who are licensed and those who are not. Title acts are less menacing than practice acts - at least on the surface. But according to Neily, these rules are simply the gateway policies through which ASID gets its foot in the doors of statehouses across America.

"They go to the legislature, convince them to pass a law regulating who can use the term 'interior designer' and create a board responsible for enforcing that law," Neily said. "Once they get the title act in the books, the group comes back a while later and says to lawmakers, 'we're regulating the title, we really ought to be regulating the work, too.'"

That's happening now in Illinois, which already has a title act. In March, a state senator presented a new bill that would make the Land of Lincoln the fourth state to license interior-design professionals. The qualifications for a license are rigorous: anyone wishing to practice the full scope of interior design would first need a total of six years of combined education and training experience. An applicant also would have to sit for - and pass - the $1,265 NCIDQ test.

The bill language makes it unclear what design work is legal or illegal for anyone without a license. Guessing incorrectly has serious consequences: The first offense is a Class A misdemeanor; subsequent offenses qualify as a Class 4 Felony, which is punishable by three to six years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000. The bill would also allow the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation to impose a civil penalty of up to $5,000 for each violation.

A law like this does not bode well for anyone not already in the design industry - especially minorities.

Economists Jaret Treber and David E. Harrington of Kenyon College found that "black and Hispanic interior designers are nearly 30 percent less likely to have college degrees than white designers. Thus, regulations with academic requirements disproportionately keep minorities out of the field." Treber and Harrington also estimated that the number of interior designers fell by 1,300 between 1990 and 2000 in regulated states, "demonstrating that regulation is limiting economic opportunity in interior design."

Illinois' proposal is exceptionally harsh. So is Florida's practice act, especially considering that 47 other states don't currently limit who can practice interior design.

Trade associations often lobby state legislatures for rules like these to make it difficult for new talent to set up shop, according to the Institute for Justice's Beth Kregor.

"The laws are shaped by people who have a clear interest in keeping business for themselves, rather than opening the occupation to competition, especially competition that would charge lower prices," Kregor said.

Regulations like the ones that affect interior designers in Florida cost individuals dearly, and are often the difference between a successful career and putting professional aspirations on the backburner.

"I'm Cuban-American. I came here when I was 3 years old," Eva said. "I saw my parents lose their home, property and start over with nothing. To me, this was the land of opportunity. But I've gotten a huge wake-up call. There are so many people out there who don't want competition, and once they get in their little club they fight tooth and nail to keep other people out."