Licensed Plumbing in Texas

a guest blog from Spencer Hanes, plumber and owner of Arroyo Services

Unless you are actively involved in the plumbing industry or just pay close to attention to the news, you may not have heard about the Licensing situation concerning Texas Plumbers. Even if you are unaware of the situation, it still affects you, and your neighbors, and your friends. To achieve a Master Plumbing License in Texas takes 8 years of on the job experience, countless hours of classroom training, memorizing hundreds of pages of plumbing code, and multiple trips to Austin for rigorous exams. I have personally been in the plumbing industry for 15 years, now owning and operating our own Plumbing Business. Most plumbers do not take their license, their job, or their role in public health and safety lightly. I recently made a trip down to the State Capitol to march with about 4000 of my fellow Plumbers, fighting to keep plumbing licensed and regulated in Texas. Before we start the discussion on this latest legislative fiasco, let’s back up a bit, to how and why plumbing regulation in Texas began.

Plumbers march on the Texas state capitol.

New London, Texas; 1937. The New London School explosion occurred on March 18, 1937, when a Natural Gas Leak from an improperly installed piping system, caused a deadly explosion, destroying the School of New London, a community in Rusk County. The disaster killed more than 295 students and teachers. As of 2017, the event is the third deadliest disaster in the history of Texas, after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, and the 1947 Texas City Disaster. While the disaster in New London was devastating, many safety concerns were brought to light and addressed. Previous to this incident, natural gas had, by nature, no odor to it, making it completely undetectable to the human senses. It was this event that created regulation across the country to add the “rotten egg” smell that we all know today means danger.

Newspaper reporting the explosion at the New London School

In addition to the general safety regulations concerning natural gas, the people of Texas also realized a need for regulating the people installing plumbing systems in all buildings throughout the state. Ten years later the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners was created to “Protect the public health through an efficient and equitable system of licensing.” The Board upholds the Plumbing License Law by examining and licensing master plumbers, journeymen plumbers, and plumbing inspectors. The Board also investigates complaints and visits cities to check licenses. In 1987 the Legislature gave the Board the authority to issue citations for violations of the Plumbing License Law. Until recently, the Plumbing License Law only applied to cities of more than 5,000, but the law encouraged smaller municipalities to voluntarily adopt its provisions and plumbing codes. In 1993, the Legislature changed the law to require all cities, towns, villages, and owners of public water systems to utilize a plumbing code similar to the state code.

Now, let’s jump forward to 2019. This gets a little lengthy. The TSBPE is up for a “Sunset Review.” Almost every state agency that is created by the state only operates for a set amount of years, until the legislature passes another a bill to keep it funded. If the elected officials do not see fit to reinstate the agency, the ‘sun sets’ on the agency and it is dissolved without any further action required. The Sunset Review Committee gave their report, and their recommendation to dissolve the Plumbing Board. Some of the reasons given were staff shortages, and low pass rates on exams. The TSBPE collects roughly $5 million in revenue, while only being allowed to operate on a budget of half that size. All the while, the politicians in Austin demand more and more, yet fail to allocate any more funding. They suggested watering down the licensing exams, making them “easier” to pass. The recommendation of the Committee was to transfer Plumbing License to TDLR, the agency which oversees 40 different licenses in the state, including Electricians, Cosmetologists, Dog Breeders, and Massage Therapists. The TDLR bill, or HB621, did not pass. Now, to be fair, most plumbers were fighting against this bill. We did not want to devalue our licenses or endanger the citizens of Texas by making it easier for anyone with a pipe wrench and a truck to put your family in at risk. What was never expected was for Texas Plumbing Regulation to be dissolved altogether. Deregulating an entire industry, of 71,000 individuals, whose sole purpose is to protect the health and safety of the State? Opening doors to contaminating entire city drinking water systems or allowing sub-par natural gas installations in our schools? That is exactly what happened.

Without sponsoring and voting another bill in to effect, the TSBPE would die a faultless death when the sun set on it, September 1, 2019. This is not the first time a situation like this has occurred. As recently as 2017, the Texas Legislators failed to pass a bill extending the Texas Medical Board. This would have meant without licenses, doctors wouldn’t have been able to prescribe medicine and order all needed tests, or practice in hospitals or other facilities that require a state medical license. With no legal definition of what it takes to be a physician, anyone could have opened up shop and called themselves a doctor. This near-catastrophe was averted by a special session called by the governor, where both the House and Senate voted to reinstate the Medical Board.

However, Governor Abbott and President Trump (maybe unknowingly) stepped up to the plate and found a way to keep the Plumbing Board alive, for now. Both the Federal and State Governments have extended Disaster Declarations in regions devastated by Hurricane Harvey. In an executive order, Abbott stated “that it was necessary because plumbers are needed in Texas to address the destruction from Hurricane Harvey. A qualified workforce of licensed plumbers throughout the state, including from areas not directly affected by Hurricane Harvey, will be essential as those funds are being invested in crucial infrastructure, medical facilities, living facilities, and other construction projects.” The order will delay the abolishment of the state board until “disaster needs subside” or until the 87th legislative session, which is scheduled to meet in 2021.

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