Koch Industries to state: Drop occupational licensing

Koch Industries, which wants to cut occupational licensing in Alaska, might want to research the issue a little before deciding what Alaska needs.

Mark Holden, a Koch lawyer and senior vice president, outlined the company position in a column published in the Alaska Dispatch News five days before Christmas.

"What should Alaska lawmakers' New Year's resolutions be? I have a suggestion: Break down barriers to opportunity for the least fortunate," wrote Holden. "Elected officials in Anchorage City Hall and the state government in Juneau should roll back burdensome occupational licensing regulation."

A reader asked me if the Holden column was a generic creation in which the words "Anchorage," "Alaska" and "Alaskans" had been inserted in places where the original text might have said, "use name of city, state or state residents here."

Based on my search of where that column has popped up, there's no question that's what Koch Industries did.

The Wichita-based company, controlled by right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch, should be proud. Their company attorney has probably set a record for bombarding state legislators with New Year's resolutions. We can only hope these resolutions will go the way of real resolutions and be forgotten before the Super Bowl.

Holden's office submitted a nearly identical column about the alleged evils of occupational licenses to newspapers throughout the United States. So far I've found newspapers in 36 states that published his New Year's greeting.


He changed the name of the state and city of publication for each audience to make it appear as if the column had a real local connection, which typically netted a local headline, like "A New Year's Resolution for New Hampshire lawmakers" , "A New Year's Resolution for Wilmington and Delaware lawmakers" and "A New Year's Resolution for Memphis and Tennessee lawmakers."

He, or his staff or a computer program, also made slight adjustments to three sentences in one paragraph, quoting state-specific statistics from a study about the burdens of licensing published by the Institute for Justice. He didn't mention that the institute, founded with the help of seed money from Charles Koch in 1991 and supported by David Koch, went off the deep end in its denunciation of occupational licensing.

That's the main problem with Holden's oft-repeated column and the study he cites — neglecting to mention that there are benefits to licensing, including consumer protection, worker safety and public safety. These are mentioned in a White House report that he quotes without putting it in context.

If individual licensing rules need revision to better balance costs and benefits for certain jobs, then local officials in each state are in the best position to make changes.

In the meantime, I'm not putting any trust in Holden's column or in the Institute for Justice analysis of the Alaska situation.

For instance, in its rundown of onerous requirements, the institute alleges that school bus drivers in Alaska can't be hired without 1,097 days of "education/experience," a frightful total.

In fact, the state requirement for school bus drivers is that they must have had a driver's license for at least three years — which is not onerous. It's obviously a good idea.

In reviewing the publications that ran Holden's column — ranging from the Orange County Register to the Boston Herald and the Detroit News — I was struck by his success rate at papers large and small.

Perhaps there are few editors with the time or inclination to do a Google search on such submissions, especially over the holidays when people are on vacation.

That the column was under the name of a high-ranking employee of a major company certainly helped, but the sophisticated marketing campaign that appeared to tailor the column to a specific state by changing a few words and one paragraph was essential.

"What should Pennsylvania lawmakers' New Year's resolutions be? I have a suggestion," he told readers of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Allentown Morning Call. It's time to get rid of "burdensome occupational license regulations," he said.

He had the same suggestion for newspaper readers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Wyoming, Nevada, Missouri, Wisconsin, Florida, Minnesota, California, Utah, North Dakota, Iowa, Rhode Island, Delaware, Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, Colorado, Oregon, Louisiana, Connecticut, West Virginia, Mississippi, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, Michigan, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Tennessee. His photograph ran along with the column in many cases.

The onslaught began with a Wall Street Journal column Dec. 8 that skipped the season's greetings his office peddled to newspapers across the country.

Holden's best wishes for the New Year ended this way:

"Lawmakers in (NAME OF CITY) and the state government in (NAME OF STATE) should — at the very least — prevent the creation of new occupational licenses. Better yet, they should roll back those that already exist. If lawmakers do this, they'll help countless low- and middle-income (NAME FOR STATE RESIDENTS) improve their lives and climb the ladder of opportunity.

"Surely that's a New Year's resolution worth making — and keeping."

No, it's not. I think Alaskans can figure this out without the phony resolution and the fill-in-the-blank advice.

Dermot Cole, a longtime Alaska reporter, columnist and author, lives in Fairbanks. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.