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Safety 'At Risk': Future Of Texas Plumbers' Licensing, Regulation Unclear After Legislative Impasse

Gabriel C. Pérez

Plumbers in Texas will no longer be subject to state regulations after lawmakers this week flushed the state plumbing code and the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners, a state agency that employed dozens and generated $5.2 million in revenue in 2017.

Soon, anyone can call themselves a plumber without completing the agency-required education and tests, said Roger Wakefield, master plumber and owner of Texas Green Plumbing in Richardson. Wakefield, who has been a plumber for 40 years, said the industry is now "completely unregulated," and will lead to more unqualified workers entering the workforce.

"We're going to put the safety of the homeowners and the public of Texas in jeopardy," he said. "Plumbers install medical gas, they install the potable drinking water that we have every day. If they're not doing it right, people's safety is at risk."

Wakefield said he and other plumbers are calling Texas Gov.Greg Abbott and asking him to order lawmakers back to Austin for a special legislative session to remedy the situation. Abbott's press office did not respond to requests for comment, but the governor indicated on Twitter on Monday that he has no plans to reconvene legislators before the next regular session in 2021.

The state plumbing code will cease to exist on Sept. 1 while the state plumbing agency, whichhad 28 employees as of March, will have a “wind down” period to wrap up operations by September 2020. Several requests for comment left with the state board were not returned.

That entity is responsible for licensing plumbers and enforcing the state plumbing code. The agency was up for what’s known as the sunset review process, when lawmakers periodically assess how efficiently state entities are organized and whether they should continue to exist. Two bills filed during the legislative session that ended Monday would have extended the agency's life.

Senate Bill 621 received pushback from members of the plumbing industry because it would abolish the state board and put them under the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, a larger agency that oversees more than two-dozen other professions. State Rep.Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, voiced her opposition to the bill after a committee of House and Senate lawmakers took out her amendment delaying the move of the plumbing board until 2021. The bill failed 57-88. Paddie later tried to reconsider the vote, but he failed again, 68-76.

However, House members say state Rep.Chris Paddie R-Marshall had the power to save the plumbing board with House Bill 1550, a "sunset safety net bill." Lawmakers usually pass a such a bill every session to keep a number of state agencies from shutting down by pushing their sunset review to the following session. Paddie had earlier called for a committee of lawmakers from the House and Senate to iron out the differences on the safety net bill, but they didn't issue a report by a key deadline. Thompson said from the House floor Sunday that if Paddie chose to discharge the committee and call a vote before the House gaveled out for the night, then both the safety net bill and the plumbing board bill could have been saved.

Paddie said the plumbing board operated with some inefficiencies, including that in order to take a plumbing exam, an applicant must come to Austin for the test, no matter where he or she lives. He said it also took the plumbing board up to eight months to send a license to applicants after completing their education requirement, whereas the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation estimated they could do it in a few weeks.

However, members of the industry say the long licensing period is important to maintain the safety risks of the general public. Wakefield, owner of Texas Green Plumbing said Texas has one of the more "stringent" exams and requires more hours before plumbers are given a license.

Texas has about 58,000 licensed plumbers, but the growing population and rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey has led to a shortage, according to a report by the Sunset Commission.

However, Rick Lord, business manager at the Plumbers Local Union 68, said the shortage is more about the money than the waiting period. He said the shortage is due to to low pay, not the plumbing board, and his union has seen an increase in applications to join the union because it helps them secure benefits and fair pay.

Alicia Dover, executive director of the Plumbing Heating and Cooling Contractors of Texas, said the organization was meeting Tuesday afternoon and could not yet comment on how the elimination of the plumbing agency will affect plumbers in Texas.

Many cities around Texas have local plumbing codes that build off larger codes, including the Uniform Plumbing Code, a policy developed by International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials, and the International Plumbing Code, developed by International Code Council. Without the state code, regulation will probably go back to the cities and municipalities, Wakefield said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated what the Texas plumbing code is based on. The state code is based on both the Uniform Plumbing Code, a policy developed by the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials, and the International Plumbing Code, which comes from the International Code Council.

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