Sunset or Dawn:  A Balanced Perspective
Matthew Winn, CEO, Winn’s Continuing Education, Inc.

The Perfect Storm

As a reminder, Texas law requires every state government agency to be reviewed approximately every 12 years.  Unless the full Legislature agrees the need for any particular agency still exists, that agency must begin a 12-month wind down period—AKA “Sunset.”  If you would like to review the details of what has transpired so far and follow the TSBPE’s Sunset Review process to its conclusion, visit the article: Texas Sunset Summary.

Here is a summary of only the main Sunset Commission recommendations regarding the TSBPE and plumbing regulation more broadly.  We encourage you to read the full details at the link above, but these are the most dramatic items.

  1. Move plumbing regulation to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) by September 2020. (An attempt to extend the TSBPE for 4 years of close scrutiny was defeated 7 to 5.)
  2. Establish at least 7 testing sites around the state while retaining both a written and practical component (the practical component had been in danger of being removed entirely but survived in the final recommendations).
  3. Eliminate the high school diploma and GED requirements for obtaining a plumbing license or registration (which is already underway).
  4. Remove the requirement for apprentices to be under “direct supervision” once they have completed an appropriate amount of education and/or experience (apparently to be defined by the TSBPE or TDLR).
  5. Replace the individual Responsible Master Plumber designation with a similar company Contractor’s License.

The Sunset process has laid bare deep divisions in the plumbing industry, with traditional associations making “salvation of the TSBPE” their primary focus while some of the largest plumbing companies are lobbying for the Sunset.  Some individual plumbers ask how anyone could even consider eliminating the plumbing Board, while others ask how anyone could not make that recommendation.  Over 40 plumbers spoke at the Sunset hearing with most expressing support of the TSBPE, while select Sunset commissioners pointedly called for the removal of all TSBPE members and executive staff claiming they have failed in their responsibilities.

It seems there is only one broadly held consensus—things must change.

 6 to 8 month waits to take a plumbing exam and up to 12 month waits to resolve a complaint have taken their toll on the TSBPE’s reputation, the opinions of licensees, and the morale of the TSBPE staff.  Yet, years of hiring freezes and budget cuts while the demand for plumbing licenses skyrocketed are often identified as the root cause.  This created a perfect storm, and no one was satisfied with the status quo, including the TSBPE and their staff, but especially not the Sunset Advisory Commission.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Just a few months ago, social media sites related to Texas plumbing were filled with critiques of the TSBPE backlogs and responsiveness, with little interest in understanding the budget limitations and staffing constraints being experienced.  Seemingly overnight, these same sites exploded with outrage that “plumbing is being destroyed” in Texas.  As the shock has dissipated, many licensees realize there are several positive ideas buried in the recommendations and the result doesn’t have to be the industry apocalypse so many are predicting.

Now What?

Uncertainty can be unnerving and Texas plumbers face a mountain of uncertainty for the next few months.  Several of the Sunset points are management recommendations, which the TSBPE is expected to implement as quickly as possible, either via rule changes or day-to-day principles of operation.  Other recommendations require a change in the state’s plumbing license law (known as statutory changes), which may only be implemented after approval by the Texas House of Representatives, Texas Senate, and the Texas Governor.

The recommendation related to exam sites, retaining the practical exam components, and the high school diploma or GED requirement are all management recommendations.  Those related to TDLR, direct supervision, and the RMP designation are all statutory (license law) recommendations.

The TSBPE has already begun implementation of the Commission’s management recommendations, which should all be accomplished by September 2019.  The statutory recommendations have a far less definitive resolution.

Purell Anyone?

As a result of this process to date, I have spent more time in Austin than normal, and I usually feel like I need to shower in Purell as I leave.  The unfortunate truth is that politics today is a messy, backroom, cutthroat business.  You can be assured there are countless meetings, meals, rallies, photo ops, blast emails, social media posts, campaign contributions, and lobbyist fees being devoted to this process on both ends of the opinion continuum.

I would never be a good politician in today’s world because I can see both sides of this debate and I don’t pretend to have a magic ball to pontificate which will be the best answer.  Therefore, instead of telling Texas plumbers what their opinion should be, we are sharing constant updates and perspective so our clients can develop informed opinions of their own and proceed accordingly.

My personal hope is simple—high plumbing standards implemented via efficient & effective regulatory processes.  I won’t even argue for or against the education related proposals, believing our role is to serve the industry and if the industry emerges healthy, our business will be just fine as well.

The Legislative Trifecta

The statutory recommendations will next emerge from the Legislative Council as a “Sunset Bill” which will be introduced in both the House and Senate, where committees will have public hearings again before each chamber votes on a final version and then attempts to reconcile any variations between the two.  This bill must be introduced no later than March 8th and the final, reconciled bill must be approved and sent to the Governor for signature by May 27th when the Legislature must adjourn.  If this doesn’t happen, the Governor could call a special session, or the TSBPE will Sunset automatically.

Show Me The Money

But of course, we can’t forget the money!  While all of this drama plays out surrounding the Sunset Bill, the Legislature will also be working out the state budget for the next two years.  The TSBPE is currently budgeted to spend approximately 52% of the funds it brings in while 48% benefits the General Fund.  The first draft of the House & Senate budget proposals hold the TSBPE’s funding steady, without considering the potential impact of the Sunset recommendations.  However, during my recent meeting with the Governor’s budget staff, they indicated it will be unlikely for the TSBPE to receive additional funding unless it is earmarked specifically for additional testing sites state-wide.

The Walmart of Regulation

Winn’s CE is already regulated by TDLR in another context as are many plumbing businesses who also carry HVAC or electrical licenses.  Some share positive perspectives while some bemoan “the Walmart of Regulation” as TDLR sometimes refers to itself.

I recently attended a portion of the TDLR planning session related to plumbing regulation and noted the following:

  • The Executive Director and staff are very concerned about the effectiveness & efficiency of plumbing regulation.
  • They envision 22 testing sites state-wide and they are researching multiple ways to deliver the practical exams in each.
  • They expect the wait time for plumbing exams to be a matter of days vs months.
  • Their current average time to resolve a complaint is 141 days, leveraging online complaint filings, 36 investigators with law enforcement backgrounds, and 17 prosecutors (mostly attorneys) who see each case to completion.
  • Recognizing most of the plumbing license requirements are enshrined in the state law, they do not expect significant changes beyond what the Sunset Commission has already recommended.

Tomorrow Will Come

No matter what happens, plumbing will still be necessary, it will still be regulated,  and good plumbers will still be in high demand.  After all, state government doesn’t guarantee job security, only customers can do that. 

I wish you all the best and we will see you on the other side…wherever that is!

[Constructive comments worthy of licensed professionals are welcomed below.]