Texas Politics

Plumbers and public safety saved after Abbott issues executive order extending board

Asa Womack, the owner of D-N-A Plumbing in Plano, was overjoyed when he learned Thursday that Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order to keep the state board that regulates the plumbing industry intact.

“Greatest news I’ve gotten since my wife’s last pregnancy,” Womack said.

The proclamation was welcome news to plumbers whose plumbing licenses — and livelihoods — were in jeopardy when lawmakers failed to pass legislation this session that would have ensured the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners continued to function past Sept. 1.

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.

Abbott hinted earlier this month that a solution was on the way, tweeting “We’ve got this.”

A day before plumbers across the state planned to rally at the Texas Capitol, Abbott announced that through a section of the state’s Government Code related to natural disaster recovery, the board would continue to function through May 31, 2021.

The section of government code that Abbott cited gives the governor the ability to suspend provisions of regulatory statutes if following those statues would hinder disaster recovery.

“The magnitude of what still must be rebuilt is reflected in the more than $10 billion of federal funds that are newly or nearly available to Texas for areas impacted by Hurricane Harvey,” the proclamation read. “A qualified workforce of licensed plumbers throughout the state, including from areas not directly affected by Hurricane Harvey, will be essential.”

Plumbers warned that without the state board’s oversight, public safety would be at risk. The state’s plumbing code and all state licenses were set to expire Sept. 1, with the agency winding down operations within a year.

“We applaud Gov. Abbott’s leadership in recognizing the seriousness of this situation,” Alicia Dover, executive director of the Plumbing Heating and Cooling Contractors Association of Texas, said in a statement. “From providing peace of mind to families in their homes to ensuring safety in our schools, hospitals and businesses, the role of the plumber is central to the core of our daily lives.”

Jimmie Dale, a fourth-generation plumber and president of Baker Brothers Plumbing, Air Conditioning and Electrical, said his employees are relieved, especially young apprentices who, amid the uncertainty, still had to take their tests to earn their licenses.

There’s “some controls for safety and the welfare of everybody in the state. That was of utmost concern,” Dale said. “And the guys get to retain something that they’ve all earned and worked really hard for.”

The board was set to expire under the state’s sunset review process, a routine evaluation of state agencies’ effectiveness to determine if they should be abolished or consolidated. The Texas Sunset Advisory 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.

Jeff Longspaugh, the owner of ClearWater Plumbers in Fort Worth, said plumbers across the state are planning to be more involved to ensure the board improves upon its inefficiencies.

“It buys us a little bit of time to get better organized and take care of what we need to take care of,” Longspaugh said.

These next two years, Dale said, plumbers will need to remain vocal to keep the board held to a higher standard.

“It’s great to be promised and actually somebody comes through,” Dale said. “Now it’s our job to hold these guys accountable to shorter dates, other testing areas — whatever it takes to make it a functioning part of the government.”

The board’s pending expiration garnered widespread action, with more than 90,000 people signing a petition calling on Abbott to hold a special session so lawmakers could pass legislation to keep the board intact. And a group of plumbers planned to rally at 11 a.m. Friday on the south steps of the Texas Capitol.

Womack, a spokesman for the 71KPlumbStrong group organizing the event, said he still plans to attend Friday.

“We are not done yet,” Womack said. “Still lots of work to do.”

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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.