Window treatments vs. right wing conspiracy?

When most people think of hot-button political issues, they probably don’t think of interior decorators. But California is the latest battleground in a national war that has raged across numerous states, not to mention The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and George Will’s columns.

SB 1312 by Senator Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would create an official state certification for “registered interior decorators.” It would also reconstitute the California Architects Board as the California Architects and Registered Interior Designers Board, made up of five architects, four interior designers and three public members.

The bill is sponsored by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and two other organizations representing the profession. It’s opposed by the Architects Board, the National Kitchen and Bath Association—and a conservative legal foundation called the Institute for Justice.

In fact, the Institute has been waging a battle against new certification standards for interior designers in states including Texas and New Mexico. They’re circulating a white paper about their fight against increased certification for designers, “Defining Cartels.” The organization’s Clark Neily penned an April 1 editorial in the Wall Street Journal warning of people who want to “pass a law making it a crime to give advice about paint colors and throw pillows without a license.” They’re also touting their successes, such as an October decision by the Alabama Supreme Court ruling that state’s design certification law unconstitutional.

What prompted an organization better known for fighting on issues like school choice and free speech to draw this line in the carpet?

“The cartelization of the interior design industry speak to one of our core pillars, economic liberty—the right to earn an honest living free from unreasonable government interference,” said Jennifer Perkins, a staff attorney with the Institute. While the Institute has been heavily involved in the issue, she said that they do not fund any of the design group’s opposing the bill. “We get blamed for a lot of things,” she said.

“When you look at the Institute for Justice, it’s funded by people who want to take us back to a world without regulation,” said Bruce Goff, a designer and spokesman for the ASID. These funders include members of the Coors family, the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame, and the Goldwater Institute; some have also given to the design groups opposing SB 1312 and certification bills in other states. He added: “They’re using us as a weapon. The profession happens to be collateral damage.”

SB 1312 addresses real problems in the industry, Goff claims. While the Institute and many consumers think of interior designers as little more than “pillow fluffers,” he said, the skills and scope of the profession have grown for years. In many cases, he said, interior designers draw up complex plans including lighting systems—but then need to get an architect to sign off on their designs, adding cost and red tape.

These problems are exacerbated by a lack of consistency among local building departments, as well as the new International Building Code (IBC), which calls for design work to be done by “registered design professionals.” In many cases, Goff said, cash-strapped local governments are outsourcing plans inspection duties to design firms—mainly architecture firms who want to keep interior designers dependent on them to sign off on their work.

Goff also rejects the idea that the bill would limit economic freedom. It wouldn’t stop non-certified people from doing all interior design work—especially when it came to single family homes, where the practice is largely unregulated. What it would do is create a two-tiered system, in which choosy consumers could pick “registered” designers who pass a state certification.

“Anyone can call themselves an interior designer,” Goff said. “A registered interior designer has a certain scope. A regular interior designer could be your aunt Millie.”

While the ASID characterizes the bill as gaining new professional status and independence for the professional of interior designers, others call the bill part of a larger effort of one design group to create a “cartel.” Linda Johnston Panattoni, vice president of government relations for the National Kitchen and Bath Association, characterized it as part of a nationwide attempt by the ASID to create a “monopoly” over the field.

Carmen Olsson-Rigdon is president of the California Legislative Coalition for Interior Design (CLCID), which opposes the bill. She said the bill would not only force designers to pass a test called the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ)—she said it would also impose severe prerequisites on who was allowed to take the test. She contrasts this with the California Bar Exam, which anyone can take and pass, whether they’ve been to law school or not.

“What is defined in the bill is everything an interior designer does,” Olsson-Rigdon said. “The domino effect is that there are designers who would be put out of business.”

The bill is also opposed by the California Architects Board and the American Institute of Architects, California Counsel (AIACC). Mark Christian, lobbyist for the AIACC, characterized the bill as a power grab cloaked behind the rhetoric of “protecting the consumer.”

“There is absolutely no evidence that there is a threat to the health, safety and welfare of the public,” Christian said. “If you’re going to create a practice act, it should be to protect the public.”

Senator Yee said that he was aware of many of the objections to the bill. He canceled the bill’s hearing with the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday in order to consider amendments to address some of these concerns. These could include a weaker bill that creating a board under the Architects board to regulate interior designers. But, he insisted, the new International Building Codes essentially demand that some type of registration be created for interior designers. He also noted that the bill would be cost-neutral, because any additional costs for state regulatory personnel would be supported by fees on registered interior designers.

“There is always mistrust whenever you’re dealing with scope of practice,” Yee said. He added, “No one is willing to put their guns down.”

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