Texas is one of 27 states that have active sunset legislative requirements for its licensing bodies. This means that after a specified number of years of activity for a body, such as the Texas plumbing board, the legislature must renew the body’s charter.
The Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners (TSBPE) is set to expire at the end of this year since the Legislature allowed the body’s authorization to lapse. The result has been a proverbial post-session crap show as a large push has since been made by plumbers and other licensing advocates to renew the charter.
So much so that Gov. Greg Abbott has taken notice.
Abbott tweeted on June 4: “TEXAS PLUMBERS: We’ve got this. 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. We will let you know very soon. Don’t worry.”
This was in response to a brouhaha started by a group of Texas plumbers who circulated a petition calling for a special session to renew the plumbing board’s charter. On their website, the group says, “We must stay united as LICENSED PLUMBERS in our duty to protect the health and safety of the State of Texas.”
The group plans to hold a rally at the Capitol on June 14.
The Texan reached out to Robert “Chap” Thornton, the business manager for the Local 286 Plumbers and Pipefitters Union in Austin. He is a 3rd generation licensed plumber in Texas and has been a member of 286 for 25 years.
Thornton has taught plumbing apprentice classes for 15 years.
Thornton told The Texan that all licensed professions “have at their core a response to protecting the health & safety of the citizens.”
Thornton said of the board’s importance for the plumbing profession, “These licenses and codes were a response to some tragedy in our history that affected an individual or group and resulted in sickness or death.”
He also said that in the absence of state licenses, “The major cities will respond with [their own] licensing program” — which Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has already suggested in light of the TSBPE situation — and smaller cities will be largely left without.
Thornton added, “The improper installation of plumbing systems can result in contaminated water supplies, natural gas leaks with fires and explosions, and improper sanitary drainage installations that will cause sickness and the spread of disease — the latter being something that a homeowner may not be realizing is the source of the health issues they are experiencing.”
Plumbers aren’t the only ones pushing for renewal of the board to relieve the situation.
Rep. Justin Holland (R-Rockwall) said on Twitter, about the issue, “The continuation of plumbing regulations is absolutely essential to the safety and welfare of Texans.”
He continued, “The training, qualifications and licensure of plumbers is [sic] what sets them apart and is crucial to the State’s building and construction industry — and to keeping families safe.”
He also added, “There’s no doubt that TSBPE lacks leadership and vision — it’s time for them to go.”
Holland finished by saying, “The industry needs new structure and a new board. No need to abolish a license that qualifies a profession that deals with natural gas tubing/piping, gas in medical offices & keeping H20 clean.”
It is unclear just how the governor plans to renew the board, but he seems determined not to call a special session to accomplish it.
Opposition to the governor’s approach is two-fold: the idea of plumbing licensing overall and reinstating the board by executive rather than legislative action.
The first concern can be summed up by economist Milton Friedman’s argument that it creates an unnecessary barrier to entry into the market.
Arif Panju, managing attorney of the Institute for Justice Texas Office, told The Texan, “If licensed plumbers seek a credential to reflect their proficiency, they should follow the path of car mechanics and obtain voluntary certification.”
He continued, saying, “Car repair professionals are not licensed by the state, yet consumers rely on them to repair sophisticated vehicles and systems that transport millions of Texans at high rates of speed each day. A license doesn’t protect health and safety, it simply constrains labor markets and artificially increases prices on consumers.”
About the group pushing the renewal, Panju said, “Unsurprisingly, it is politically-connected plumbers that called for the licensing of their occupation decades ago, and it is the same plumbing establishment, not consumers, that are begging for regulation and the continuation of their licensing board.”
Panju concluded, touching on regulation other than licensing, saying, “By relying on less-restrictive regulatory alternatives like permitting and inspections at the local level, and less-restrictive voluntary alternatives such as private certification, the state will be well positioned to address the shortage of plumbing professionals that has long plagued our state—shortages primarily caused by mandatory licensure and a licensing board controlled by market participants.”
In 2014, Gov.Abbott even echoed a similar theme as Panju’s.
A post on his website addressing occupational licensing, Abbott said, “Such claims are dubious, however in a competitive and free market, one must always stay ahead of the next competitor or risk losing business.”
Abbott continued, “The practice of state licensure is so ubiquitous that it rarely receives the attention it deserves, but a growing body of evidence and research reveals that occupational licensing schemes can have broad, negative effects on the job market.”
Mirroring the points that Panju made, Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, said, “A lot of these licensing programs exist for no other reason than to protect a professional cartel and keep out competition.”
Giovanetti also touched on the second concern over this issue: the way in which Gov. Abbott plans on restoring the TSBPE.
“I think we’re all waiting to see by what mechanism Governor Abbott thinks he can do that,” Giovanetti stated.
Referencing the 2017 legislative fight over renewing a medical review board, Giovanetti pointed out, “If the Governor can just — with the snap of his fingers — restore an agency that has expired over sunset, then what’s the whole point of the sunset process?”
He continued, saying, “One of the best things about our system in Texas is our sunset process.”
“Texas is a model that should be followed federally and in other states where these agencies,” after a certain period of time, Giovanetti noted, “must be proactively renewed or they go out of existence.”
The process “is not meant to be a rubber stamp for these state agencies,” Giovanetti added.
The governor acting unilaterally to preserve the TSBPE, Giovanetti believes, would severely weaken the sunset process in the future.
Four states currently operate without licensing for plumbers. They are Kansas, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wyoming.
Proponents and opponents alike await Gov. Abbott’s final decision on the matter, and how he plans to implement whatever decision he makes.
A special session over the renewal of the TSBPE is continuing to be discussed by licensing supporters panicked about the board getting the flush from lawmakers.
Although it is highly unlikely such a scenario will occur based on the governor’s own statements.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.