Returning to Its Roots: Tennessee’s Recent Occupational Licensing Reforms and Future Opportunities


November 30, 2020 9:18AM

Since its founding, Tennessee has been a land of economic opportunity. From the first settlers who crossed the Appalachian Mountains to those looking to escape the high taxes of Illinois, New York, and other states, economic freedom lies at the heart of the Tennessee experience. It is no accident, then, that the state’s motto is “Agriculture and Commerce.” The Tennessee Supreme Court has even stated that the right to earn a living is exactly that: a fundamental constitutional right. Unfortunately, the right to earn a living and this spirit of economic freedom and opportunity have not always been treated as such in the Volunteer State.

Public policy often takes years, or even decades, to realize mistakes and begin to correct its course. The latter half of the twentieth century saw the rapid growth of occupations subject to licensing requirements, requiring people seeking to earn a living to first obtain the government’s permission. In Tennessee, the licensure requirements have produced one of the most burdensome regulatory environments for workers nationwide. But the tide has begun to turn. Since the Right to Earn a Living Act was passed in 2016, Tennessee has eliminated several licenses, giving those rejoining society the ability to enter licensed professions and expanded pathways to licensure. However, additional opportunities for reform still exist.