• An earlier version of the House budget would have relaxed some of the restrictions North Carolina places on its licensed opticians
  • Those reforms would have followed some of the John Locke Foundation’s principles for reforming occupational licensing, including universal license recognition as well as moving the state in the right direction toward a least-cost-state standard
  • The reforms were not in the final House budget, but they could be restored in the final conference report

Licensure is listed as the “Most Restrictive” form of occupational regulation used by the state. A report by the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division in 2020 made that crystal clear to legislators. Licensure prohibits people from their own professional practice “without permission from a government agency.” The report states clearly that licensure “Can be used to deny individuals the legal opportunity to earn livelihoods in their chosen fields.”

Such exclusion is contrary to what the North Carolina State Constitution refers to as — in a great turn of phrase — “the genius of a free state.” It must be used only for extreme instances.

In all other cases, as we at the John Locke Foundation have faithfully argued, workers and consumers are better served by expanding occupational freedom as much as practicable. Consider a recent research brief concerning a dispute between reflexologists and massage therapists. The North Carolina Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy had earlier determined that reflexology is not massage and bodywork therapy. More recently, however, they decided reflexology was, and suddenly certified reflexologists found themselves at risk of needing a massage license. No reasonable person could consider such a change to constitute an extreme case needing immediate licensure.

The dispute was more indication of this:

the need for a structural overhaul of North Carolina’s approach to licensing professions. It goes beyond just deregulation. Among other things, North Carolina needs a careful, thoughtful approach in law to make sure that any future regulation of a practice is — to borrow language from other states — the “least restrictive regulation necessary to protect consumers” and “demonstrably necessary and narrowly tailored to legitimate health, safety, and welfare objectives.”

I continue to argue for a package of licensing reforms for this reason. Along with a Right to Earn a Living Act, they include an Occupational License Consumer Choice Act, instituting sunset with periodic review of remaining licenses and licensing boards, a least-cost-state standard of remaining licenses’ burdens, and universal license recognition for remaining licenses.

Relaxing different aspects that make North Carolina’s optician license so strict

The House budget offers in real-time a different licensing dispute. Should North Carolina continue its extremely tight restrictions on dispensing opticians, or would it serve practitioners and the consuming public to relax those restrictions? This dispute, you’ll note, does not even extend as far as questioning the need for a license — but 29 states manage to do without licensing opticians.

An earlier version of the bill would have loosened restrictions on dispensing opticians in many ways, such as:

  • Make it clear that such ancillary job duties as selecting frames, ordering an optical aid to be delivered, transacting a sale, handing an optical aid to the wearer after it has been fitted by an optician, repairing glasses, and giving advice on how to clean and care for optical aids don’t fall under the scope of practice of a dispensing optician.
  • No longer require a six-month internship for applicants, who are already required either to complete 1,600 course hours in a curriculum approved by the North Carolina State Board of Opticians or two and a half years of an apprenticeship under a licensed dispensing optician, optometrist, or physician specializing in ophthalmology. Only North Carolina and one other state, Rhode Island, require an internship.
  • Shorten the apprenticeship period in lieu of having completed coursework to two years instead of two and a half. Half of the minority of states that license opticians require apprenticeships for two years or less.
  • No longer require that a board-selected national examination for qualifying for the dispensing optician license include a section on what processes are used to manufacture the products the optician would dispense. It is typically not required by other license states.
  • Allow the board to waive the licensing exam for opticians holding out-of-state licenses in good standing.
  • Allow the board to waive the licensing exam for opticians from states that do not require licenses for dispensing opticians who hold national certification and have been practicing for at least two of the past four years.
  • Make common-sense allowances for stores required to have a licensed dispensing optician on site to conduct business for “usual and customary absences, including illness, meal breaks, and meetings away from the establishment.”

Those provisions would have addressed some unnecessary stringency in North Carolina’s law concerning dispensing opticians. From Locke’s list of reforms, they would have included universal license recognition, wisely extending that principle to opticians from states that don’t formally license dispensing opticians. It would also have moved North Carolina in the right direction on the least-cost-state standard, lowering burdens by removing an unnecessary internship, trimming time on apprenticeship, and making other adjustments to scope of practice and conducting normal business.

Unfortunately, those reforms were removed from the last version of the budget bill. That would mean that North Carolina would: (a) remain one of only two states with a required internship for dispensing opticians; (b) persist in requiring longer apprenticeships than half the states with optician licenses; (c) continue to require testing in the knowledge of manufacturing optical products; and by extension, (d) not welcome out-of-state opticians moving here (who would face either needing a license now or at least satisfying many of those other aspects of North Carolina’s optician licensing law that exceed other license states’ requirements).

The House and Senate will conference on their versions of the state budget. Among other things, it means they could restore these provisions to the final budget. Doing so would help the consuming public and lift some burdens from the practice of opticianry in North Carolina. The vast majority of states, after all, have shown they can trust their opticians without such heavy restrictions.