A surprising day at the Texas Legislature

I covered my first political race for a daily newspaper in 1975. Bully Mayor Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia won reelection. Since then I’ve covered zoning boards, city councils, legislatures in several states and even events at the White House.

But I saw something today that I’ve never seen before. And it wasn’t pretty.

Let’s start at the beginning.

For those who have followed my Watchdog Nation since it was created in 2008, you know it’s about showing you how easy it is to protect yourself against corporate and criminal bullies – if you know what you’re doing. The impetus for the consumer rights movement came about when I had personal problems of my own.

The first roofer I hired roofed the wrong house.

The second roofer I hired ended up in jail, convicted of criminal theft after he scammed 86 people for $671,000. (Read that story here.) Surely, I had to learn how to protect myself before I could show others how to do it.

So scamming roofers became a pet peeve of mine. (It’s the biggest section in my national-award-winning book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong.)

Over the years, I’ve developed a fondness for the North Texas Roofing Contractors Association. In the absence of a state licensing requirement for Texas roofers, this trade association promotes its own ethics code and pushes hard for honesty in this troubled industry. I even helped them with their video. (Watch here.)

So when the NTRCA told me that Senate Bill 311, sponsored by Sen. John Carona of Dallas, was designed to bring licensing requirements, I cheered!

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong shows you how to protect yourself. The book, now in its third 2013 edition, won two awards for social change.

Senator John Carona (Photo courtesy of Ramparts360.com)

Today, I traveled to Austin to appear before the Texas Senate Business & Commerce Committee, chaired by Sen. Carona, a Republican. I wanted to testify in favor of his bill, something I could never do as a working journalist. Now I can, though. So I did.

At first, Carona was my hero. He stood tall in the committee room at the State Capitol. He made me proud as he strongly argued in favor of his own Senate Bill 311. He apologized when he took extra time to explain it and a companion bill.

When early witnesses criticized his bill, he staunchly defended it. Forcefully. But then something happened.

After the first hour, he announced that “I hear you” to the bills’ critics and said he would drop the roofer licensing portion. He announced he would settle for roofer registration only, probably at a cost of $100 a year for each Texas roofer. Roofers would register and people could easily track them down if something went wrong through this new state registry. At least that’s something.

But then an hour later, after hearing more testimony, he announced he was dropping the meager registration requirement, too.

Keep in mind that Texas licenses electricians and plumbers, and I never hear complaints about them. But roofers? I hear about roofing scams, especially among the elderly, all the time.

So by the time I got up to testify after more than 2 ½ hours of watching him water down his own bill, I was confused. I testified that, after watching what had happened, I was lowering my standards from licensing to registration, a weaker version of enforcement, but at least something designed to protect Texans from roofing scams. Please at least enact the registration requirement, I implored.

Carona told the packed hearing room, “I’ve lowered my standards just this morning.” The room, filled with dark-suited lobbyists, erupted in laughter.

Watchdog Nation founder Dave Lieber testifies at the State Capitol.

Watchdog Nation founder Dave Lieber testifies at the State Capitol.

Imagine that. The chairman who forcefully pushes his own bill at 8 a.m, waters it down by 9 a.m., then waters it down even more at 10 a.m. Then less than an hour later, it appears, he has given up on enacting the real teeth in his bill almost entirely. And this is his own committee!

Here’s the takeaway. If you are a Texan and you are hoping the 2013 Legislature will enact new laws designed to protect consumers from corporate bullies and individual scammers, think again. This is a Tea Party legislature, perhaps the most conservative legislature in the nation. What that means, to use the language of these legislators, is that they won’t do anything in this session to “increase the footprint of government.”

That means more Texans will get scammed, and their state government does not care.

Final note: I heard a lot of excuses why roofers shouldn’t be regulated like other professions in today’s testimony.

One witness said consumers should be smarter. (Well, it’s kinda complicated to pick a reputable roofer, as I learned.)

Another said that with hundreds of thousands of roofs put on in Texas each year, only a small portion were scammed. (First off, it’s not so small, as my mail indicates. And second, that’s like saying there are a lot of banks but only a few get robbed. Notice that banks still have security measures in place – bars, guards, alarms. And none of that exists in the roofing industry.)

Still another said that any expansion of government in any way is bad for Texas.

The bill isn’t dead yet, but it suffers from severe poisoning. By its own sponsor.

After the hearing, I gave Senator Carona a copy of my book.

God only knows: I hope he reads it.

 

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