BOSTON — Dozens of independent boards that regulate doctors, barbers, electrical workers and an array of other professionals could soon be pulled under the state's umbrella — a move that trade groups complain smacks of government overreach.
Lawmakers are considering a bill filed by Gov. Charlie Baker to limit the independence of licensing boards and give the state the power to "review and veto" any action deemed to stifle competition.
The proposal responds to a U.S. Supreme Court opinion last year that boards controlled by members of the profession they regulate are not immune from anti-trust lawsuits.
In that case, the court ruled that the state dental board in North Carolina had no protection from anti-trust claims when it issued cease-and-desist orders to companies offering teeth-whitening services.
Baker administration officials say the ruling leaves licensing boards in Massachusetts vulnerable.
Even legal actions may be challenged, Mike Kaneb, Baker's deputy legal counsel, told a legislative committee on Tuesday.
"Individual board members can be sued," he added.
But exerting authority over the boards is also raising concerns.
Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, which represents about 75,000 skilled construction workers, said the state needs to address the issue but he's concerned the governor's proposal would give the state too much power over the boards.
Boards that oversee electricians and other skilled trades already have state oversight, to varying degrees, he noted, as well as lawyers to ensure their decisions comply with federal anti-trust laws.
Several representatives of trade groups opposed the proposal at the legislative hearing. Robert Butler, business manager for Sheet Metal Workers Local 17, called it a "solution to a nonexistent problem."
"This bill would allow the state to make decisions without any public input or recourse," he said.
Baker, a Republican, has promised to make the state more business-friendly, in part by cutting through red tape. In a statement, he said licensing rules and limits on professionals "have the effect of restraining trade and commerce" and are bad for business.
Donna Kelly-Williams, president of the Massachusetts Nurse's Association, criticized his plan in comments to lawmakers.
"With this directive, it seems as though the governor would like to turn the Board of Registered Nurses and other similar boards into nothing more than vehicles to spurn economic competition at the expense of the public health and safety," she said.
Baker administration officials said that's not the intent.
"The only motivation for the governor's bill is to respond to the changes in law," Kaneb said Tuesday.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, legislation to exert more control over independent licensing boards has been introduced in least six other states, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
In Massachusetts, the Division of Professional Licensure oversees 45 boards, which regulate more than 370,000 individuals and businesses in some 50 trades and professions.
Most board members are volunteers appointed the governor and operate independently from the state.
Baker signed an executive order last year directing the licensing division and other agencies to conduct monthly reviews of recent board decisions to determine if any violate federal laws.
Martin W. Healy, chief counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said the state must act quickly to comply with the Supreme Court ruling to ensure that its boards don't face legal challenges.
"This is a major issue for the state that needs to be addressed quickly," he said. "You would have a very difficult time attracting talented people to these positions if they could held personally liable for the board's decisions."
Christian Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the Times and its sister newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.