The licensing fight in Illinois comes down to the wire

Contractors across the country are fending off attacks from plumbers, landscape architects and cash-strapped cities.

November 6, 2012
Chuck Bowen
Industry News

L&L caught up with IA state affairs director Chad Forcey on the show floor to find out what’s happening in states like Illinois, Florida and Oregon, and what the battles over licensing mean for contractors across the country.

L&L: You guys are fighting a pretty strong battle in Illinois. What’s the latest there?
Forcey: Illinois passes licensing legislation in 10-year increments. The license for irrigation contractors puts plumbers in the driver’s seat anyway. It is an irrigation contractor license, but does require a sign off from a master plumber. Existing statutory law reverts all work with water in pipes outside and inside the home back to the licensed plumbing profession. When that happens, ever irrigation contractor that wants to stay in business will have to hire a plumber on staff to manage their existing crews. He'll have to be on site, and approve projects. He may know nothing about irrigation – doesn't matter.

L&L: What does that mean for day-to-day operations?
Forcey: Plumbers have to be union and licensed, and companies would have to pay the prevailing wage for the market. That's the only way an irrigation company can stay in business. A sole-proprietor will have to become a certified master plumber, which means study and a journeyman phase.

My concern is that the state doesn't have the resources to enforce this. In smaller areas, they're going to force law abiding contractors to become fly-by-night contractors, or get out of the business. It's a terrible pill for the industry to swallow.

L&L: What is the near term outlook for these situations?
Forcey: The law expires Dec. 31 unless the legislature passes an extension. We’ve been legislatively blocked by the Illinois Plumbers and Pipefitters Union, but other members of legislature have been supportive. Unfortunately, the union continues to hold all the cards here. They've said that after the elections they'll decide what to do next. They said they'd sit down with us after the elections. They may say it's time for contractors to become plumbers.

I'm optimistic that we can get a deal struck before the end of the year. The union may have to settle for something else than a hostile takeover of this industry in Illinois. That doesn't mean that I'm overconfident. This is going to be a very, very tough fight.

L&L: You mentioned that in parts of south Florida, a contractor needs upward of two dozen different licenses to operate legally.
Forcey: Yes. They’re all municipal, and enacted by local governments to require professional credentials and restrict the trade. It’s a response to fly by night contractors and a way of generating revenue for struggling cities. Licenses are typically the purview of state government.

There are no state irrigation licenses in Florida. We’re working with the Florida Irrigation Society to pass a voluntary license that exempts the professional from local irrigation licenses. We give you one-stop shopping – a state test that applies to everywhere. It can save contractors thousands of dollars.

L&L: In a bit of good news, you had a victory in Oregon in defining scope of practice for landscape designers. How did you do that?
Forcey: Earlier this year, the Oregon Landscape Architect Licensing Board decided to call irrigation design landscape architecture. Designers were getting cited for operating illegally, threatened fines and threatened with jail time.

We learned that this was a dispute over scope of practice for the landscape architect board and the landscape contracting board. Rather than get involved in a turf battle, we decided to simply question landscape architect board about the scope of practice of a certified irrigation designer. We established the national recognition of our certified irrigation designers and the recognized testing process and credentials of that program.

The board really stepped back and said irrigation designers should be licensed by state landscape contractor board. The board changed its position.

L&L: Are these types of incidents isolated, or do you think it will spread to other states?
Forcey: The opportunity is to get licensing on the books in places like Florida, New York, Michigan, New York, Minnesota, possibly even Virginia. The opportunity is to incentivize licenses to solve the problem of enforcement, which is difficult for many states in the current economic reality. The opportunity is to promote professionalism in an incentivized way.

The challenge is to promote the irrigation profession as the irrigation profession not as landscape architecture, not as plumbing. That's the challenge. Who is going to stand up and go to a state government and say wait a minute, “This is a certified profession and distinct,” but the IA?