Not all occupation licensing laws on the books in Annapolis actually protect Maryland consumers from harm. It's pretty clear that many of these laws misuse state sanctions to protect existing businesses from unwanted competition. Now a new study by the Washington-based Institute for Justice can help Maryland lawmakers decide which of these laws serve the public and should stay — and which should go.

The report, "License to Work: A National Study of Burdens from Occupational Licensing," examines licensing practices for 102 lower-wage occupations in all 50 states. If you want to work in one of the 42 occupations licensed in Maryland, you may need to meet a minimum age requirement, demonstrate a certain level of often-irrelevant experience and training, pass an exam that may have little to do with your job, and pay a licensing fee.

Some licensing requirements make sense. But of the 102 occupations reviewed in the report, only seven — cosmetologist, pest control applicator, school bus driver, city bus driver, emergency medical technician, truck driver and vegetation pesticide handler — are regulated in Maryland and all other states.

Beyond this handful of occupations with widely recognized public health and safety issues, the report questions the motives for licensing many others. "Occupational practitioners," the authors write, "often through professional associations, use the power of concentrated interests to lobby state legislators for protection from competition through licensing laws. Such anti-competitive motives are typically masked by appeals to protecting public health and safety."

There are three ways to sort out the occupations that need state oversight from those that serve no compelling public purpose:

•First, if consumers in more than half of the states get along just fine without regulating an occupation, there is a good chance Maryland's licensing requirements are not necessary. Of the 42 occupations licensed in Maryland, 20 are licensed in fewer than half of the other states. In this category we find the following occupations licensed in Maryland, along with a small number of other states: social and human services assistant, tree trimmer, animal trainer, travel guide, upholster, floor sander contractor, packager and farm labor contractor. Licensing such trades is both unnecessary and foolish.

•Next, if the licensing requirements in Maryland are a lot stiffer than those in use in other states, there is a good chance Maryland's requirements serve mainly to protect existing businesses from competition rather than protect consumers. For example, in Maryland, a pest control applicator needs a year of experience, while the national average is 191 days. To get a massage therapy license requires 327 days of training here, compared to a national average of 139 days.

•Last, if licensing requirements have little to do with protecting the health and safety of Maryland consumers, chances are they have a lot to do with protecting existing businesses from competition. Occupations with little or no public health and safety-based issues, but still licensed in Maryland, include: sheet metal contractor; terrazzo contractor; door repair contractor; mason contractor, drywall installation contractor and glazier contractor.

For those occupations that do not clearly present an obvious need for the state to protect the health and safety of Marylanders, the report identifies private-sector alternatives to state oversight.

One option is voluntary certification through professional associations. This allows practitioners to distinguish themselves but also allows consumers to decide for themselves how much value to place on such credentials. The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, for example, presently confers its ASE certificate on about 350,000 mechanics.

In addition, instead of state sanctions, third party consumer organizations such as the Better Business Bureau and Angie's List hold occupational practitioners accountable for the quality of their goods and services.

The report ends with this advice for state policymakers. "When reviewing current or proposed licensing laws, policymakers should demand proof that there is a clear, likely and well-established danger to the public from unlicensed practice. … Forcing would-be workers to take unnecessary classes, engage in lengthy apprenticeships, pass irrelevant exams or clear needless hurdles does nothing to ensure public safety."

Ronald Fraser writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. His email is fraserr@erols.com.