Legislature left some pipes disconnected on plumbing regulation

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To judge from the reaction this past week, the Texas Legislature’s failure to take action on the future of the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners was either a victory for government deregulation or the start of a consumer public safety crisis.

Gov. Greg Abbott provided no clarity when he tweeted on Tuesday, “TEXAS PLUMBERS: We’ve got this. The Legislature has given the Governor many tools in my toolbox to extend the State Board of Plumbing Examiners for two years without needing to call a special session. We will let you know very soon.  Don’t worry.”

Abbott has since given no hint of what those many tools are or how he might use them. Should nothing be done, the state’s plumbing license law will expire on Sept. 1. The plumbing examiners board, created in 1947, would go out of existence on Sept. 1, 2020. Plumbers will no longer need a state license to work in Texas.

Roger Wakefield, The Expert Plumber of YouTube video fame, has become the de facto spokesman for the movement to save the plumbing board. He says it’s about “the lives of people in the state of Texas being put at risk.”

There is, however, no hint of that risk to the public in a Sunset Advisory Commission report that started a chain of events that led to the undoing of the plumbing examiners board.

The commission, whose job it is to assess all state agencies, was brutally critical of the plumbing board. It recommended the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulation take over regulation of plumbers, but the two chambers of the legislature could not agree on how to do that.

The Sunset Commission staff cited a backlog of more than 1,400 people waiting to take the state plumbing license examination, plus bad customer service and a growing caseload of consumer complaints that were taking longer and longer to be resolved.

The report also identified something to which opponents of state occupational licensing repeatedly object. Sunset staff concluded that Texas plumbing law and board rules protect established plumbers and make it unnecessarily difficult for new plumbers to enter the trade. Hence, a shortage of licensed plumbers in Texas, according to the report.

The transfer to Licensing and Regulation, the report said, would save taxpayers $768,000 in the first five years.

Wakefield, owner of Texas Green Plumbing in Sachse, 20 miles northeast of Dallas, told The Texas Monitor he began attending hearings and objecting to the Sunset conclusions before the legislative session began.

The Department of Licensing and Regulation, which oversees 39 occupations including electricians and air conditioning contractors, would not be able to give individualized attention to plumbers, Wakefield said.

A state with a booming population and 71,200 plumbing licenses is currently served by a plumbing board with 16 licensing specialists and nine inspectors, according to its strategic plan for 2019-23.

Plumbers, their unions and trade organizations, doubted that the licensing agency would offer as rigorous a test for licensing, cheapening the overall value of a state certification, Wakefield said.

Executive Director Lisa Hill has said that the plumbing board’s licensing program is chronically underfunded. License fees raise $5.2 million annually, but $2.7 million of that goes into the state’s General Fund.

“I admit the system needs improving,” Wakefield said. “But the legislature doesn’t want to give up the money that goes to the General Fund. They need more money, more inspectors, more computers. They could fix it if they wanted to.”

Four state senators on the Sunset Advisory Commission, including chair Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, disagreed. They introduced Senate Bill 621 in late February to retire the board. The bill passed the Senate in early April on a party-line vote, with all 19 Republicans favoring it and all 12 Democrats opposed.

The House passed an amended version of the bill that proved unacceptable to the Senate authors. Just before the end of the session, the house rejected a compromise recommendation on the bill from a joint committee.

Inaction on the bill and the failure of the legislature to consider House Bill 1550, a catch-all postponement for two years on all Sunset actions on state agencies, started the clocking ticking on the plumbing board.

When it became clear what had — and hadn’t — been done, Wakefield and others in the trade went to the media to sound a public safety alarm that was heard nationally. “Texas is About to Become the Wild West of Plumbing,” was the headline in Newsweek.

A review by The Texas Monitor of plumbing regulatory news reported over the past two years offers no evidence that a lack of state licensing creates a lawless or corrupt market for plumbing or other necessary consumer service markets.

If the legislature’s action stands and plumber’s licenses are no longer needed, Texas would join the four other most populous states in the country — California, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania — in relying on local codes rather than a state plumbing license law, according to an occupational licensing database kept by the National Conference of State Legislatures. In all, 15 states do not license plumbers.

Several states, including Texas and California, license electricians, arguably an occupation more critical to public safety, according to the database. However, several of the states like Illinois that license plumbers do not license electricians.

Arif Panju, an attorney for the Institute for Justice in Austin, which has made deregulation of occupations by the state a centerpiece of its free market, nonprofit mission, said alarming consumers diverts attention from the real goal of state protection for the plumbing trade.

“I think it’s important to note that it’s the plumbing establishment and not the public begging for the state to license them,” Panju told The Texas Monitor. “There isn’t a single shred of evidence to suggest that pipes will be bursting and people dying with the end of this board.”

Panju contrasted the state’s shortage of licensed plumbers with the situation for auto mechanics, whose repairs have critical public safety consequences. The auto repair industry polices itself through a voluntary certification by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, rather than through state licensing.

Abbott’s tweet this week suggests that he hasn’t closed out the option of retaining the plumbing board, but Panju said the governor has no constitutional authority to overturn the sunset action.

Key state officials, including Abbott and Hill, declined to return calls seeking comment. Wakefield said he spoke Wednesday to Catarina Gonzales, Abbott’s policy advisor for both the plumbing board and licensing and regulation, but she did not disclose the governor’s intentions.

Alicia Dover, executive director of the Plumbing Heating and Cooling Contractors of Texas, told The Texas Monitor her membership has not wavered in its support for the plumbing board as a stand-alone regulatory agency.

“The industry did not want to be put under the authority of an umbrella agency,” Dover said. “The governor issued a message that he would be helping the plumbers in Texas by extending the state agency that oversees them by two years. The legal mumbo jumbo of that is foreign to me, so we wait.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

 

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