Louisiana industry citizens uphold state licensing standards.

Most baseball fans are aware of the tradition at Wrigley Field - home of my forlorn but beloved Chicago Cubs - of various celebrities singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the home team’s 7th inning stretch. Occasionally, the chore falls to a professional vocalist, but most often fans follow the lead of someone who carries a tune even worse than the Cubs play baseball.

The tradition was started by the late, great broadcaster Harry Caray - himself no Caruso. Since Harry’s passing, the chorus has been led by the likes of Mike Ditka, whose excruciating renditions careen even further off-key by the half-dozen or so beers he seems to consume before grabbing the microphone. It’s all part of the fun, seeing people so accomplished in other activities revealing themselves as incompetent with a simple song.

It stops being funny when the thought dawns that this is sort of what is happening with the plumbing trade around the country. A bunch of unqualified people are doing a wretched job imitating plumbers - except it’s by no means good clean fun.

That’s why it was uplifting to find out that industry citizens led by the MCA and PHCC state chapters in Louisiana rallied in mid-May to defeat HB 601, a proposal to weaken licensing regulations in the state.

Terrible conditions linger way down yonder in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina almost two years ago. One big problem among many others is simply finding enough construction workers to do the rebuilding. Money is in short supply, and even more daunting is finding affordable housing for them. The predicament is especially acute when it comes to recruiting skilled trade workers such as plumbers. Home builders and their allies in the state legislature think easing up on licensing restrictions would help solve the problem.

And it would, if you look at it from the warped perspective that calling someone a plumber makes that person a plumber - just as you could call Mike Ditka a “singer” when he butchers “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” However, nobody is forced to buy a recording of his gruesome tune. Plumbers in name only build systems that people have to live with to the potential detriment of their health and safety.

HB 601 was defeated May 16 by a 14-4 vote in the Louisiana House Commerce Committee, thanks in large measure to aggressive lobbying by MCA of Louisiana Executive Director Henry Heier and PHCC-NA President-Elect Jim Finley, a New Orleans resident who also serves as chairman of the Louisiana Plumbing Board. That legislation would have shifted oversight duties from the Plumbing Board to the state Licensing Board for Contractors, where GCs and home builders hold sway.

“The general contractors said this bill would ‘provide more boots on the ground with plumbers in them,’ but professional plumbers don’t want just anyone filling those boots,” said Finley.

According to Heier, the following day, May 17, the bill’s lead sponsor tried to tack the contents of HB 601 into another House Bill. That effort was rebuffed by the full House in a vote of 83 to 13.

“The root cause of HB 601 is not dead,” said Heier. “We are going forward in this effort using direct mail and a Web site platform to create a 360-degree communications feedback loop. I do not know if anyone in the industry has ever done this before in a statewide campaign. This is unchartered waters, and so far it has worked.”

Plumbers and plumbing contractors almost never get a sympathetic hearing in the general news media. So it is testimony to the dedication of many industry players that they were able to muster the political support needed to defeat this measure, and quite resoundingly. It so happens that I was in New Orleans on the day before the Commerce Committee vote, being driven around by Heier to view Katrina destruction. His cell phone rang constantly with calls from respondents to his rallying cry, to the point where I told him to cut short my tour because he had more important matters to tend to.

Besides Heier and Finley, many other industry citizens took time to contact legislators, spread the word and visit the capital to demonstrate against the bill. Heier mentioned that various plumbing distributors contributed to getting the word out around the industry as well.

Not a lot has gone right down there since Katrina laid waste to New Orleans. That’s why this victory is extra sweet.