Gov. Greg Abbott pulled a fast one the other day, and it was so fast that you might not have noticed. He took power away from state lawmakers, and they let him do it.
He expanded his powers over the Texas Legislature with a cheesy move that must not go unmentioned.
The Great Embarrassment of the recent 2019 legislative session in Austin was that lawmakers left town without authorizing the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners to continue licensing and regulating plumbers.
How come? They couldn’t agree on whether the plumbing board, which has fallen behind in its work, should be killed off and its duties placed under the purview of another state agency.
When they ran out of time to figure this out, they left town knowing the plumbing board now had to close.
The solution, according to precedent, is that the governor calls lawmakers back into an overtime situation called a special session. That’s happened more than a hundred times in the past.
Abbott knows this. He called a special session two years ago when lawmakers failed to reauthorize the Texas Medical Board, which licenses doctors. Same situation.
But this month, Abbott announced there would be no special session.
Plumbers across the state freaked. The Watchdog heard from his plumber and others in an angry panic.
Without licensing, anyone could set up shop and claim to be a plumber. (Yeah, just like homebuilders, contractors and roofers who need not follow any licensing requirements in Texas.)
A petition on Change.org calling for a fix had drawn 94,000 signatures.
Abbott tweeted out a calming message and, believe it or not, his graphic turned out to be a toilet. Not kidding.
“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.”
And what was the solution?
Abbott issued Executive Order No. G-06, which overturned the death of the plumbing board.
That alone is pretty iffy. He’s taking powers away from the legislative branch.
But worse is his reasoning: His order was a disaster proclamation, citing continued cleanup needed for Hurricane Harvey, which is approaching its second anniversary.
Not having a plumbing board “would threaten recovery efforts, diminish hurricane preparedness and heighten the dangers I am responsible for meeting,” the governor wrote.
He could have told the truth: The Legislature is the disaster here, not the hurricane. They left town without doing their job.
I can only imagine how the conversation went in the governor’s office.
Gov: How can we avoid a special session? If it goes long, the cost is $1 million, and all the guys and gals are on vacation. I don’t want to ruin that. They had a great session.
Adviser: Sir, we can use the Harvey excuse. Tie it to that. That way we don’t embarrass Dan and Dennis and all our friends down there.
Gov: Let’s do it.
John Wittman, the governor’s spokesman, told me, “Obviously, not having a plumbing board, not having unregulated plumbers would considerably impact those who are still rebuilding and recovering from Hurricane Harvey.”
Across the state, he said, it was “absolutely essential” that homes be rebuilt properly and government money is wisely spent.
Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson said that Abbott’s invocation of Harvey to clear up the lawmakers’ mess “sounds as if it’s an excuse, but perhaps not the real reason.”
“To clean up a disaster,” he added, “plumbers are necessary, but that’s a pretty thin thread to hang this whole thing on.”
He said Abbott’s circumventing the established way to make a correction “is unprecedented, as far as I know.”
One lawmaker, House Democratic leader Chris Turner, said in a statement, “While I am concerned about this precedent, it is necessary plumbing continue to be regulated for the safety of Texans.”
I checked with my plumber, Stacey King. His suggestion is that the plumbing board stay in business, but lawmakers ought to give it a cash infusion so the board can hire more employees for better service.
There are 58,000 licensed plumbers in Texas. Currently, the wait for a license to take effect can be up to eight months. There’s a plumber shortage in Texas, and plumbing board inefficiencies don’t help matters.
‘Unless someone calls him on it’
Jillson said of Abbott’s fast move, “It may well be a legal question, but unless someone calls him on it, he will solve this by executive action.”
The Watchdog calls him on it.
What’s wrong with the plumbing board?
The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission looked at the workings of the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners, which licenses 58,000 plumbers in Texas.
The commission, which looks at state agencies’ operations and recommends to lawmakers whether they live or die, found the following flaws:
“With demand increasing but supply plateauing, the regulation of plumbing in Texas is in need of serious change.”
“The plumbing board’s serious, ongoing problems and reticence to change no longer meet the expectations of the state or the growing demands of the industry.”
“The board and agency have a track record of neglecting known deficiencies.”
“Ongoing problems and frustrations include backlogged exams, with more than 1,400 individuals waiting to take exams, poor customer service, with the agency only able to answer about 62 percent of its calls, and growing complaint caseloads and resolution times, with each investigator handling between 45 to 100 complaints.”
The commission “recommends transferring regulation of plumbing to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation.”