Against the flower police

Posted: Dec 18, 2003 12:00 AM

For those worried that tests around the country are systematically being watered down in a backlash against standards and accountability, there is good news and bad news out of Louisiana. The good news is that the Bayou State is maintaining the strictest possible standards and routinely handing out failing marks. The bad news is that it is doing so on a state-mandated floral exam that is so absurd it's like something out of "Monty Python's Flying Circus."

You can't become a florist in Louisiana without passing a ridiculously difficult and subjective state-licensing exam, which is a blatant way for existing florists to lock newcomers out of the market. During the past three years, the pass rate for the floral exam has been less than 50 percent. Louisiana is freewheeling when it comes to drunkenness, public nudity and political corruption, but boy, try to arrange flowers without proper accreditation, and the authorities will attempt to keep you from touching baby's breath in Louisiana ever again.

As you welcome poinsettias into your home this Christmas season, spare a thought for the targets of the Flower Police in Louisiana, and the victims of similar regulatory absurdities across the country. The Washington, D.C.-based public-interest law firm Institute for Justice has brought suit against the Louisiana law as part of its national campaign against such anti-competitive regulations, the sole purpose of which is to lock newcomers out of a given market. These regs are classic cases of the politically powerful, in the form of current business owners, twisting government to their ends.

The rules are usually profoundly silly, since they serve no public purpose. The Louisiana regulations, for instance, say that "cut-flower dealers" can sell flowers singly or in bunches without a license -- so long as they don't mix together different kinds of flowers or put the flowers in a vase, because that would constitute dangerous "floral arranging."

To become a licensed florist in Louisiana requires passing an exam that costs $150 to take and has a one-hour written test and a four-hour practical portion. For the practical section, an applicant makes arrangements that are judged on, among other things, whether the flowers have been "picked properly" and "spaced effectively." Current florists judge the tests and have an interest in having people fail so that they won't provide future competition (especially, of course, with ineffectively spaced flowers).

IJ has the records of one applicant who passed the exam only on her fifth try. On one of her failing tests, one judge gave her a perfect 10 for a wedding design, while three other judges gave her a zero. This makes the judging of Olympic figure skating look scientific by comparison.

One of the plaintiffs on whose behalf IJ is suing, a woman named Sandy Meadows, has failed the exam three times, although she has worked as a "floral clerk" -- assisting a licensed florist -- for nine years. A provision in the regulations says that a florist shop may, in dire circumstances, operate without a licensed florist for 90 days. Meadows recently took advantage of this loophole to fill in at a store in Baton Rouge that had lost its licensed florist. After the 90 days had expired, an inspector from the Louisiana Horticulture Commission arrived to order Meadows to trash the arrangements she had made that morning or face a $250 citation for -- yes -- practicing floristry without a license.

Honest people can disagree about the theory under which IJ argues such regulations are unconstitutional. But no one can defend these kinds of rules on the merits. Florists don't go into their line of work to get rich, but because they find it rewarding. They should be able to pursue it without state harassment. A band of warriors for liberty, IJ has recently helped open markets for cab drivers, hair-braiders, book vendors, casket sellers and vintners. May the florists of Louisiana be next, in a blow for commonsense and Flower Power.