Texas Gov. Greg Abbott Plans to Act Unilaterally to Preserve State Oversight of Plumbers

In a move that surprised veterans of the legislative process in Austin, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this week said he would act unilaterally to extend the life of the state agency that oversees plumbers. A piece of legislation failed during the regular legislative session aimed at reauthorizing that agency while making some changes to modernize the way plumbers receive their licenses.

After the legislation failed to pass, it would seem the only way to extend the life of the agency would be for Abbott to call a special session to ask lawmakers to reauthorize it. All state agencies are subject to oversight by the Texas Legislature and they are periodically reviewed by a commission to ensure they are still necessary and running efficiently. 

The Plumbing Board was found to be running anything but efficiently at a time when there is a shortage of plumbers, so some changes were debated. 

Right now, it can take as long as eight months for the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners to issue a license. One primary reason for the delay is that in a state of nearly 30 million people spread across 254 counties in two time zones, the only site a person can take their plumbing test is in Austin. That’s why the governor’s office and others supported moving the Plumbing Board to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, which oversees a variety of licensed professions.

Without explaining how he could do so without an act of the Legislature, Gov. Abbott this week tweeted that he is able to extend the Plumbing Board's operations for the next two years. At a news conference in Dallas, he declined to provide any details and said his office is looking at a menu of legal options. 

Before Abbott’s declaration that he can fix this on own without a special session, Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen had said local governments will now be responsible for regulation of plumbing. But some construction leaders think that course is not wise. 

"The State of Texas joins six other states in deregulating the plumbing industry at the state level, leaving cities and municipalities with full authority to regulate plumbing codes at the local level," Speaker Bonnen said, apparently in reaction to news stories centered on the state throwing in the towel on the issue. 

The speaker is correct that cities can do inspections. But that ignores the fact that, for instance, roughly 2 million people live in unincorporated Harris County, a government with no ordinance-making authority. There is also the fact that in some other states where local governments oversee plumbing, counties have ordinance-making authority. Texas counties do not. Small communities in West Texas and other sparsely populated areas would be the “Wild West for plumbing,” as one construction insider put it.

Even those in construction who are generally averse to licencsing of skilled trades said Abbott is correct to take action in this instance.

Jon Fisher, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Texas, told the Austin American-Statesman:

"This wasn’t a problem that the governor caused, but he is stepping up and taking responsibility and trying to fix it, and that’s a responsible position. The fact that he’s not ignoring it is good." Although the association typically opposes legislation to increase regulatory and licensing requirements, it supports regulations on plumbers because of the pivotal role they play in ensuring that drinking water, sewage and natural gas are handled safely, Fisher said.

“When there is a public purpose, a health and safety reason, then we think licensing is appropriate,” he said.

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