Va. House panel rejects proposal to give governor power over regulatory licensing decisions

By: - February 2, 2021 11:45 am

Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, speaks on the floor of the House of Delegates during the 2020 session. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Should Virginia governors be able to overrule licensing decisions made by state boards that regulate a wide variety of professions, including dentists, contractors, cosmetologists, nurses,  architects, body piercers and accountants?

A Democratic lawmaker pitched the idea Tuesday morning to a House of Delegates subcommittee, characterizing it as a social justice issue that would allow governors to help people of color who have been unfairly denied licenses.

“I have been advocating on behalf of those who I would consider not in the blue blood community,” said Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth. “Who had been left behind and not able to get their license. Because maybe they didn’t have the right connections. Maybe they didn’t have the right relationships.”

Other lawmakers suggested Scott’s bill granting governors that power might do the opposite, creating a pardon-like system that could allow political donors and other well-connected people to call in favors if they run afoul of the professional regulators who vet applicants for certain industries and punish misconduct by licensees.

“This thing is totally ripe for abuse,” said Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach. “This is a good old boys system.”

Though there was widespread agreement that regulatory boards should treat people fairly, the House subcommittee voted the bill down, prompting Scott to say he’ll “be back next year.”

Several supporters of Scott’s proposal offered testimony about their experiences with regulatory boards. 

A contractor said he lost his license amid a financial dispute after missing an arbitration meeting and “couldn’t afford to get it reinstated.”

Brenda Epps, a pharmacist who said she invested a lot of money to fulfill her dream of opening her own pharmacy in Chesterfield County, said she ran into licensing trouble after being investigated for filling out-of-state prescriptions.

“I had no idea that I had done anything wrong,” Epps said.

Ken Stoner, a Richmond-area dentist and longtime friend of Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, said he had seen racial discrepancies firsthand while observing cases before the Virginia Board of Dentistry.

“My concern is that I witnessed what I thought was a disparity when I was involved in looking at cases in which a minority dentist was treated differently from the majority of White dentists,” Stoner said. “I just felt that at the time it was not diverse and I didn’t think that was fair.”

As originally proposed, Scott’s bill would have allowed a governor to both issue new licenses and restore a license that had been suspended or revoked for disciplinary reasons. In its original form, it would have applied to the legal profession as well as every profession regulated by the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation and the Department of Health Professions.

Scott amended the bill to apply only to license restorations and only to Executive Branch agencies, not the judicial branch. The latter change seemed to be in response to concerns from the Supreme Court of Virginia, which has authority over the legal profession along with the Virginia State Bar.

Other professional industries also seemed uncomfortable with the idea of politicians having final say over who should and shouldn’t be able to practice in Virginia.

“We really don’t want to see politics enter in the licensing process for architects, engineers and CPAs which have a huge responsibility and burden, as do doctors and lawyers, in protecting public health, safety and welfare,” said Patrick Cushing, a lobbyist speaking on behalf of the American Institute of Architects, the American Council of Engineering Companies and the Virginia Society of Certified Public Accountants.

The bill failed in an 8-0 vote.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.