Committee delays vote on plumbing bill

The hundreds of unionized plumbers who crowded State Capitol halls Wednesday will have to come back next week as a state Senate committee postponed voting on legislation they opposed.

Members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and International Affairs voiced reservations about the legislation that would replace the Louisiana State Plumbing Code with the International Plumbing Code.

Commerce Chairman Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, said he wasn’t sure the two sides would ever come together with a bill that both could support.

“I still see a very deep divided line between the parties,” Martiny said.

Republican State Rep. Erich Ponti, a Baton Rouge construction contractor who sponsored House Bill 1048, agreed.

“We’re not going to get to the point where everybody sings kumbaya,” Ponti said, adding he nevertheless would try.

The panel voted to wait until next week.

“It’s a ploy,” said Neal Miller, business agent for Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Union Local 198 in Baton Rouge, after the decision. “They didn’t want to vote in front of all this opposition.”

More than one legislator took note of the number of bright green shirts and quipped that no drains were being unplugged because all the plumbers were in the State Capitol. Miller said he might bring twice as many plumbers next week.

Opponents to HB1048 argued that the Louisiana code is better and replacing it with the International Code would shift oversight from the state health agency to a council dominated by contractors and builders.

The plumbers, who filled the hearing room and crowded nearby halls, argued that the technical language in the 12-page measure would amount to removing the state Department of Health and Hospitals, which ensures the drinking water supply and proper waste disposal, from administering the plumbing code.

“It does not affect the sanitary code,” Ponti said. He repeatedly said “the facts” of the bill were being washed over by passionate, but untrue, claims about what would happen.

Most of the debates centered on differences between what the two codes require, from the way pipes are vented to how traps for grease are designed to the size of dividers between urinals.

But the key argument raised by supporters was that adopting the International Code would put plumbers on the same footing as other construction industry craftsmen as well as putting Louisiana under the standards that other states use.

Jim Bernhard, the Baton Rouge businessman who founded The Shaw Group, testified that localities often make changes to the codes, saying that the plumbing codes of Dallas and Houston differ significantly to take into account local needs and situations.

“It’s not uniform, and this won’t make it uniform,” Bernhard said, holding up the booklet that held the International Code. Additionally, the standards outlined in the 91-year-old Louisiana Code are stricter and more exacting than those in the International version.

“Sometimes we do things right in Louisiana and this is one them,” Bernhard said, adding that if there was delay, it should be for a year so that the legislators had a chance to read the Louisiana Code.

Plumber Randy Carter, of New Orleans, said the real reason contractors want to change the codes is to allow plumbers from other states to come to Louisiana and work on specific projects.