Often, it isn’t clear what the Texas Legislature has wrought until weeks after the session. With the flurry of bills that get approved at the last minute, most focus is on fundamentals — the budget, education and taxes.
So, a measure winding down the agency that licenses plumbers can sail through without much notice. And it did.
Now that the dust is settling, it appears lawmakers did not know what they were doing until it was too late. That the situation sprang from an apparent desire to speed up licensing is an illustration of the rich ironies of the political process. In the end, lawmakers instead wiped out state regulation of plumbing.
Gov. Greg Abbott now is saying he can keep the licensing agency operating without a special session. We notice he did not say how he could do so, or when it might happen. In fact, such a unilateral fix would seem to violate Texas’ separation of powers. We will wait and see.
If this bad decision stands, the state plumbing code will cease to exist Sept. 1, and the state agency regulating the profession will wind down and go out of existence by September 2020. Over time, that could mean a dwindling number of licensed plumbers and more difficulty for consumers in need of reputable help.
It also could mean unlicensed plumbers will be dealing with natural gas lines in homes and businesses. Leaky water pipes are one thing; leaking gas lines are quite another. This could put Texans at risk.
Since the political impasse that led to this mess, we have heard lawmakers say cities or counties could take over licensing and regulation. In fact, many cities — Longview among them — already operate under international building codes and local regulations that require work to be done by licensed plumbers and inspected by local building officials. But what happens when there are no licensed plumbers? And what happens in unincorporated areas?
To local governments, this must feel like the latest on the long list of unfunded mandates from Austin.
Without statewide licensing, it will be more difficult to keep standards high. There will be no license to suspend or remove because of shoddy work. Shady plumbers can just move town-to-town. This opens the same kind of possible scam seen with itinerant asphalt firms that promise a job and take consumers’ money without completing the work.
Even if local governments set standards and require local licensing, how is the consumer to know the standards set in, say, Tyler, are the same as in Longview? Plumbers also will face new problems if they work in several cities. Under state licensing, a plumber could work anywhere in the state.
It does seem the state agency, the Texas Board of Plumbing Examiners, was not doing a good job issuing licenses in timely fashion. But simply shutting it down is not the right solution. Reform it, or begin an orderly process to move its responsibilities elsewhere.
As it stands, lawmakers have put us on a path that harms a profession and will put Texans at risk. If it takes a special session to fix this leaky faucet, we hope Abbott has the good sense to call lawmakers back to clean up their mess.