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May|June 2004
An Illegal Arrangement By Cynthia Joyce
...Join 'Em By Geoffrey Gagnon
Double Blind By Clive Thompson
The Snap-on Wives By Brian Montopoli
The Prudent Jurist By Stephen Gillers
Cases & Controversies
Breaking Up Isn't Hard to Do By John Swansburg

An Illegal Arrangement

Taking the test would-be Louisiana florists can't afford to fail.

By Cynthia Joyce

THE FOLLOWING QUESTION appears on the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry Retail Floristry Exam:
21. If you have problems or suspect someone of illegally selling cut flowers, you should:
   a. call the police
   b. call the Louisiana Department of Agriculture
   c. investigate to the fullest extent possible
   d. none of the above
The correct answer is (b). Black market flowers are not worth bothering the police over, but they're serious enough to merit the state's official attention. It's easier to sell a gun than a bouquet in Louisiana, whose largest city, New Orleans, has the nation's highest per-capita murder rate. To sell bouquets, florists must pass a rigorous exam that costs $150 and is administered quarterly in the state capital, Baton Rouge. The exam includes a one-hour written test (based on the Louisiana Horticulture Commission booklet, Flower Arranging) and a four-hour design phase that requires applicants to compose bouquets in four different styles: wedding, corsage, funeral, and occasional.

Flunk the exam, as more than half of all test takers have done in the 65 years since the law was imposed, and you have several options. You can embark on a life of crime selling arrangements illegally and risk being fined up to $250 for each violation, or you can retake the written test for $50 or any portion of the practical exam for $100. You may retake the test as often as necessary until you obtain a passing grade.

Or you can go to court, which is what three disgruntled test takers did last December. In a suit filed in federal court, they argued that the test is an unconstitutional infringement on their ability to earn a living. Assisting them in their effort is the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C., that has won similar suits on behalf of cabdrivers, book vendors, hair braiders, and casket sellers.

It's hard to say whom Louisiana thought it was protecting when it enacted the florist licensing law in 1939. The state now maintains that regulation is necessary because consumers often phone in orders for third parties and never get to see what they've paid for. C. James Gelpi, the attorney whom Louisiana has hired to defend the law, called the law a "reasonable exercise of the state's authority" because "consumers frequently do not see the product sold and are totally reliant on the seller's integrity."

Clark Neily, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, believes that Louisiana's consumers can survive an occasional bad arrangement. And besides, who is to say what qualifies as a bad arrangement? "Doing a flower design, at the end of the day, is an artistic endeavor," he said. "It really should be consumers, not bureaucrats, who decide who's a good florist." He added that Louisiana's licensing requirement unfairly prevents some florists from entering the profession, in no small part because the exam is judged by other florists—who have an incentive to flunk potential competitors.

I decided to try hurdling this alleged "barrier to entry." I registered to take the February exam, paid $6 for the study booklet, and crammed for a week before the test. My floral background had been limited to cutting the rubber bands off the daisies I buy from the local deli, but I trusted my own design sense and figured, "How hard can it be?"

Flower Arranging reads like a boilerplate freshman comp essay. It offers such insights as "Foliage is appreciated for its value and interesting characteristics," "The laurel leaf signifies peace and authority," and "The shamrock is associated with Ireland." The booklet does not bother to explain why the same carnation requires a 20-gauge wire when used in a funeral wreath and a 22-gauge wire in a wedding bouquet. But in a section devoted to the principles of design, it offers a list of 11 "reminders" that include "Don't crowd flowers or let them lean on each other" and "Use an uneven number of flowers when total used is less than twelve." If this advice doesn't seem intuitive, maybe that's because you haven't heeded reminder number 11: "It is wise to attend design schools. Many are given by our wholesalers."

ARMED WITH A KNIFE, clippers, and scissors, I stood outside the 4-H Mini Farm building at Louisiana State University, just behind the livestock pavilion. A dozen women and one man were with me, a few of them puffing on cigarettes as they waited to be admitted to the Retail Floristry Exam testing center. Most of them were in their mid-30s to early 40s and had been here before—as many as five times. Each had experience selling and arranging flowers, either in a grocery store or a pharmacy or, in one case, in her own flower shop. None had been able to pass all five sections of the test.

Sharon Barnett drove down that morning from Iota, La. "I have to redo the bridal and the corsage," she said, trying in vain to hide her bitterness at having to make a 90-mile trip each way to take the test for a second time in three months. She had passed the other sections of the exam, but took too long with her wedding bouquet ("I wanted my bride to have a beautiful bouquet, of course") and hadn't budgeted enough of her allotted four hours to complete it or the corsage in time.

Barnett never aspired to be a florist, but because the pharmacy where she works sells flowers, her boss suggested she get a retail florist license, since his wife is one of only two licensed florists in the shop. Not that the wife did much of the arranging anyway, Barnett said. "She took a $300 course and passed the exam," Barnett said. "But she can't make anything that would be let out of the shop."

As the test time neared, another woman emerged from a car with a "Showers of Flowers" logo on the side door. She began repeating the guidelines on caring for house plants. "Humidity: 40 to 60 is best for indoor plants," she murmured. Her mantra spread a panic through the crowd. "Percent or degrees?" another woman demanded, raising her voice when she got no reply. "Is that percent or degrees?"

The pressure was starting to get to me, too—and my livelihood didn't depend on a passing grade. When I asked to use the restroom a few minutes before exam time, I was sternly instructed to avert my eyes from the testing area, though with so many repeaters among the test takers, it wasn't at all clear what the test givers were trying to keep secret. When a proctor admitted us into the exam room, single file, he checked my ID and directed me to table number 14. For the duration of the exam, I was addressed simply as "Number 14."

"My name is Ben Knight," the exam administrator said. "I am the Louisiana state florist." Louisiana State Department of Agriculture and Forestry badges were visible on his forest green baseball cap and vest. A pale blue kerchief tied around his neck fell just above a large gold cross necklace, blatantly defying the principles of complementary color harmony, as established in Flower Arranging, which Knight himself co-authored. Knight ran through the exam rules like a football coach barking at a bunch of unruly adolescents. "Do not talk during exam—you will fail. Do not talk about any part of the written exam after you have completed it—you will fail," he instructed. "You will not be penalized for spelling. When in doubt, phonic it." I tried to share a knowing smirk with my neighbor, but she wouldn't look at me. She wasn't taking any chances.

Two hours later, I was hungry and tired, and many of the flowers I'd been trimming, wiring, and taping had gone limp from mishandling. I glanced around me and was shamed by the arrangements I saw. I had liked the corsage I'd created—the only bouquet I'd completed so far—until I turned to see Barnett behind me holding a perfectly symmetrical and tidily arranged corsage, an assortment of red roses and pink carnations, with just a touch of white gypsophila. A week earlier, I had never heard of gypsophila. I would have called it baby's breath.

The judges had a different perspective on Barnett. They failed her corsage and wedding retakes by one point each. She was penalized for "improper wiring," "improper focal point," and "poor harmony." I did much worse. Though I scored a respectable 80 percent on the written test, the judges gave me zeros for all four arrangements.

Call me bitter, but I have to wonder: Does Louisiana really need to protect its teens from off-center corsages? And does it make sense that wedding bouquets have to be built according to stricter codes than most apartment buildings in New Orleans, and with such elaborate wire infrastructures that they might well outlive some of those buildings?

"Please don't use my name, it'll only make things harder for me," a woman in her late 50s implored as she left the testing center after her sixth attempt to win state approval for her wedding bouquet. She used to run a lucrative florist business northwest of Baton Rouge. Then a representative from the Department of Agriculture shut her down last fall. The previous time she took the test, she missed a passing grade by 5 points out of 100. This time she passed the exam, though just barely, with a score of 76. "I did everything exactly the same way this time as I did the last time—and the time before that, and the time before that." All together, the exams, travel expenses, and licensing fees will have cost her $1,000. But it's not just the money she minds. As she put it, "it's what you have to go through."

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