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After Hurricane Katrina leveled the pine forest that had been their sole source of income, Benedictine monks in Louisiana  wanted to support themselves by making and selling coffins. Unfortunately for the monks, in Louisiana only a licensed undertaker can sell coffins. It's the law, enforced by the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, which is dominated by funeral industry members who no doubt benefit from the lack of competition.

In California, there is no such law and no regulatory board for the funeral industry to dominate. Instead, it is regulated by the State Department of Consumer Affairs. Coffins are available here through retailers, even online, moderating their prices.

Why the difference? Leadership.

During his first stint as governor, Jerry Brown signed the Public Member Act, which gave ordinary citizens majority control of most regulatory boards and an enhanced voice on others. He promptly appointed 151 citizens -- and the consumer reorientation of those licensing boards led to dramatic changes that have affected our pocketbooks ever since.

I had the honor to be one of those citizens, on the Pharmacy Board. With my Brown-appointee pharmacist colleagues, we made a lot of difference. We were the first state to propose that pharmacists move out from behind the counter to consult with patients. We were quickly copied, and pharmacists' skills are now much better utilized.


Industry knowledge should always inform regulatory choices, but the only valid reason to regulate is to protect the public, not industry. It took leadership to break from the past and forever change our culture of occupational licensure.

Leadership counts. This change that improved our lives wasn't much noticed by the press or the average Californian, and it was never trumpeted by any political campaign. Yet it's why elections matter. The young Jerry Brown signed that law and appointed those citizens. Like many things leaders can do, he made life better for all of us.

With a Perspective, I'm Marsha Cohen.