Commentary: How Government Expands, and Liberty Contracts

A bill to register building contractors is just the first step toward eventual licensing even for local handymen, and enforced compliance with energy conservation building standards to defeat climate change, no matter what the cost.

 A bill making its way through the Vermont legislature offers yet another example of government’s steady march toward regulating more of our economy and our lives.

The bill (H.157) aims to establish state control over contractors who do residential construction. The bill’s lead sponsor is Rep. Scott Campbell (D-St. Johnsbury). On April 6 the House advanced the bill on a vote of 97 to 52 and sent it to the Senate.

In March 2019 first-term Rep. Campbell, whose business career includes 22 years building and weatherizing housing, introduced a bill (H.534) to “create an enforcement mechanism for building energy standards, create minimum competency requirements for building contractors” and “create a building general contractor licensing system.”  However, it received no consideration.

Meanwhile, in April 2019 the Senate passed a public health bill of which mandatory contractor registration was a part, but the House failed to act on it.

This year, reelected, Rep. Campbell introduced his current bill. It contains the mandatory contractor registration requirements from the Senate-passed bill:  any contractor must register with the Office of Professional Regulation (OPR) before contracting for more than $3500 to undertake every imaginable variety of residential construction.

The requirement stops short of full-bore licensing, but the contractor has to give proof of liability insurance, have written contracts with customers, manage down payments acceptably, and comply with other similar provisions.

Failure to register becomes an “unauthorized practice” subject to a civil penalty. The contractor faces disciplinary action for “unprofessional conduct”, each violation carrying a civil fine of up to $5,000. The bill gives OPR two new employees, one for managing the registration paperwork and one for enforcing against alleged violators. Total cost: $200,000 per year, raised by fees ultimately paid by the contractor’s customers.

Many of the unprofessional conduct prohibitions are, to be sure, not unreasonable on their face. The OPR promises to use a “light touch” in carrying out its duties under the bill. But there’s a new finding in Rep. Campbell’s bill that will undoubtedly influence how “light” a touch future OPR regulators employ.

That finding is that “improving energy performance is a key strategy for meeting the requirements of the Global Warming Solutions Act”. That’s the law, ardently championed by Rep. Campbell, that the legislature passed over Gov. Scott’s veto last September.

Why is this a game changer? Because the OPR will come under steady pressure from the legislators who passed the GWSA, their lobby group allies, and the partisan Secretary of State who supervises the Office, to use its powers to crack down on building contractors. They will be pressured if not required to build to energy conservation standards that will stiffen year by year, as required by the GWSA Climate Action Plan to emerge by the end of this year.

It’s not enough that the customer knows what he or she wants, and the contractor offers to provide it at an agreed price. It’s not enough that Better Business Bureaus, the experience of friends and neighbors, and online resources provide information about contractor competence and reliability.

The regulatory power of the State must be mobilized to entangle and control especially the small-scale local handyman and fixer-upper contractor, which means there will soon be fewer of them. As Rep. Marcia Martel (R-Waterford) told the House after voting no: “This bill just kills any chance of being a small caring contractor in your own community. ….”

In the bill’s defense, Rep. Campbell promises consumer protection against incorrectly done work. He states that “fears of compulsory licensing, bureaucratic exams of contractor competency, and blocking home sales until expensive work is done” are simply “groundless”.

Oh? Maybe he has forgotten that he himself sponsored two bills in the previous biennium: one to “create a building general contractor licensing system” with minimum competency requirements (H.534), and one to prohibit occupancy or marketable title for sale of a single family residence not certified to be in compliance with approved energy standards (H.719), which assuredly will be set forth in the coming GWSA Climate Action Plan.

Rep. Campbell, by all accounts an intelligent and well-meaning man, is on a mission to defeat climate change, and in particular to make sure no construction or even sales of single family homes can be allowed in Vermont without the approval of a state government controlled by people whose careers depend on making Vermont the Perfect Little Climate Conscious State. That mission has become so important to him that he can dismiss any dissenting predictions, no matter how well founded on legislation that he himself has sponsored, as “groundless”.

The larger issue is, what will become of Vermont and Vermonters when our every activity, our every transaction, comes under the reproving eye of a coercive state government determined to have its way?

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.


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