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The real knock-down, drag-out fight in Florida is over commercial interior design

The young woman stepped to the podium, eager for a chance to address Florida lawmakers.

“I came to this country for two reasons. I came for freedom, and I also came for a dream, a dream which you want to take away from me,” said Llilian Perez, of Miami, her voice shaking. “You just don’t care. I see your faces.”

You might expect such passion to be about education, taxes or immigration.

Her plea? Save interior design.

Forget about the tussles between unions and lawmakers, the Legislature and governor, Democrats and Republicans.

The real knock-down, drag-out fight this session is over commercial interior design.

Tears and cheers have punctuated hours of testimony as licensed interior designers warn lawmakers that lives will be lost to flammable fabrics and paints if they don’t keep regulation of the profession in place.

“Buildings do not burn. Interiors do,” Gail Griffin, a professor at Miami Dade College’s School of Architecture and Interior Design, told the House Appropriations committee Wednesday.

She scolded the panel for their ignorance.

“Do you know the color schemes that affect your salivation, your autonomic nervous system?” she said. “You don’t even have correct seating. And somebody chose that for you.”

Deregulation of the profession is covered in a massive House bill intended to boost the economy by ending regulation of about 20 professions, including auto repair shops, hair braiders, charities and intrastate movers.

The thinking is that getting rid of regulations will save business owners money on fees and make it easier for new people to set up shop. It’s part of the end-job-killing-regulations mantra from Republicans.

But no deregulation proposal has generated more controversy in Florida than the one targeting interior design.

Ninety people signed up to speak at Wednesday’s hearing about HB 5005, including dozens of interior design students who fought back sobs as they talked about worrying they had wasted time and money on degrees. Others highlighted the potential for bad design to result in materials being used for weapons in prisons, flooring that causes falls and fabrics that lead to death.

“Part of my job is to ensure the finishes that I select cannot be made into weapons,” Terra Sherlock, a licensed interior designer from Tallahassee, told lawmakers. “We do that in jails, and we do that in schools.”

A couple of weeks ago, Tampa interior designer Michelle Earley told the House Business and Consumer Affairs subcommittee her expertise means she knows to avoid fabrics that contribute to the spread of hospital-acquired infections.

“By not allowing interior designers to be specialists and focus on the things they do, what you’re basically doing is contributing to 88,000 deaths every year,” she said.

Unlicensed designers argue regulations stifle competition and keep the industry in the hands of a greedy cartel.

Pat Levenson of Lake Worth said she wanted to be an interior designer her whole life and returned to school to earn a degree in the field.

“I had no idea that Florida required a government license just to call yourself an interior designer,” she said. “I came to realize that the licensing scheme had nothing to do with protecting the public, and everything to do with protecting the industry and designers from fair competition from people like me.”

The House panel spent more time Wednesday on this issue than on the $66 billion budget proposal.

Florida is one of only three states that requires a license to practice interior design. Currently, 4,203 individuals and businesses hold such licenses. Getting one requires six years of education and experience, passing a national exam, a $30 application fee and biennial $125 licensing fee.

High-powered lobbyists have been hired on both sides, but the appeals of licensed designers appear to be gaining traction. Several representatives, including two Republicans, have said they want designers out of the proposal.

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he has been surprised by the intense passion and it has convinced him the profession needs to remain regulated.

“Interior design is more than just selecting a color and a piece of furniture,” he said. “It’s knowing the psychological impact of carpeting, and how carpeting affects the work environment and the living environment. There’s something to be said when you walk into a doctor’s office and the environment puts you at ease in your moment of illness and discomfort. It’s not fun when people get sick because of selection.”

Edward Nagorsky, director of legislative affairs for the National Kitchen and Bath Association, said those concerns are unfounded.

“They make it sound like it’s so difficult, it’s so complicated and it takes years of experience. It doesn’t,” he said, noting retailers sell products specifically designed for commercial spaces. “It’s a cartel because these licensed designers are fighting for regulations to keep other people from entering the field.”

The next stop for the bill is the House floor, which one expects is covered in flame-resistant carpet.

Janet Zink can be reached by or (850) 224-7263.

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