Texas Politics

Texas has eliminated plumbing licenses. Plumbers say that puts you at risk

Jimmie Dale gathered his men last Wednesday to deliver the news.

Dale, a fourth-generation plumber and president of Baker Brothers Plumbing, Air Conditioning and Electrical, said he was met with shock, awe and tears when he told his employees that their plumbing licenses — and livelihoods — were in jeopardy.

“It was pretty rough,” Dale said. “It’s like getting your CPA taken away through a legislative act.”

State lawmakers ended their session last week without passing legislation that would have kept the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners intact. The board oversees the licenses of about 58,000 plumbers in Texas and generated about $5.2 million in revenue in 2017, according to a January report. Now, the state’s plumbing code and all state licenses are set to expire Sept. 1, with the agency winding down operations within a year.

After that, anyone will be able to call themselves a plumber without passing state exams or having the licenses to prove it, plumbers said.

That could put public safety at risk, they said.

“Houses are going to burn down,” Dale said. “Natural gas issues are going to happen. Contaminated water supplies, more of those things.”

Asa Womack, owner of D-N-A Plumbing in Plano said: “It only takes one time for somebody that’s unqualified and not properly trained to go in there and not properly vent a gas-fired water heater, and (have) carbon monoxide kill a family.”

The Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners was scheduled for review by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which routinely evaluates the effectiveness of state agencies to determine if they should be abolished or consolidated.

The commission found the board had “a track record of neglecting known deficiencies,” such as the requirement for applicants to travel to Austin to take exams, and a wait of five to eight months to test, according to a report. The Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners did not return requests for comment.

Jeff Longspaugh, the owner of ClearWater Plumbers in Fort Worth, said that while the board wasn’t perfect, lengthy requirements to earn a license are necessary for the trade.

“I don’t think they need to skimp on those requirements,” Longspaugh said. “In the trade, 20, 25 years later, you’re still learning stuff. It’s one of those things that I think these lawmakers don’t really grasp — how much there is in this trade and why it’s so important that it’s licensed.”

Senate Bill 621, would have established the commission’s recommendations and transferred the board’s functions to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation — a move some plumbers opposed. But the bill failed when changes could not be agreed upon.

The Department of Licensing and Regulation oversaw 39 programs in 2018 — including everything from property tax professionals to midwives — with more than 800,000 licensees. Dale said some plumbers worried regulation would be watered down under such a large entity.

“Now, I’ve talked to a lot of them, and they would much rather have it than nothing,” Dale said.

Without a state board, plumbers said they anticipate the brunt of regulation would fall on local municipalities.

In “only three months, it’s just an impossibility for them to get any structure,” Dale said.

But plumbers have taken the matter into their own hands, with more than 80,000 people signing a petition as of Wednesday morning, calling on Abbott to hold a special session to keep the board intact. And a group of plumbers plans to rally at 11 a.m. on June 14th on the south steps of the Texas Capitol, regardless of what happens with the law.

“We’re not special interest people. We’re plumbers from small rural towns to big cities,” said Womack, a spokesman for the 71KPlumbStrong group organizing the event. “Our goal is to protect the health and safety of this great state of Texas.”

But Gov. Greg Abbott has signaled that a fix is on the way.

“We’ve got this,” Abbott tweeted Tuesday. “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.”

Dale traveled to Austin Tuesday to meet with members of Abbott’s staff about the issue, and while they were “cryptic” about their direction, Dale said, he believes they will put in a “a stopgap until the next legislative session.”

It appears to be rare that a state agency has continued to maintain its duties after it’s been abolished through the sunset review process.

According to the Legislative Reference Library, a similar case occurred in 1993 when the Texas Board of Dental Examiners was abolished through sunset review process after lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would have kept the board operating. While the board was abolished, the Texas Dental Practice Act, which sets standards for dental practices in the state, remained in place.

The Governor’s Office, along with lawmakers and state agencies, established a plan that allowed the board’s duties to continue. Before the board was abolished, it renewed dental licenses “so that none would lapse during the licensing hiatus,” according to a 1995 House Research Organization report.

Agency staff continued to perform their duties, and were paid through other state agencies designated by then-Gov. Ann Richards. Meanwhile, enforcement authority, such as investigating complaints, was delegated to the Attorney General’s Office and district and county attorneys, according to the report.

When the legislature reconvened in 1995, Richards designated the reestablishment of the State Board of Dental Examiners as an emergency item, and a bill was passed and made law that February, just days before a court-ordered deadline to reestablish the board.

It remains to be seen how Abbott will extend the State Board of Plumbing Examiners, with both the board and the state’s plumbing code set to expire.

“We will let you know very soon. Don’t worry,” Abbott tweeted Tuesday.

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Tessa Weinberg is a state government for the Star-Telegram. Based in Austin, she covers all things policy and politics with a focus on Tarrant County. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.