Compromise may yield state contractor registration

After years of trying to enact a law that would require all home contractors to register with the state, proponents seem poised to celebrate a victory later in the session. But they still have some hurdles to cross and opponents to face, including Sen. Robert Clegg, R-Hudson.

At an April 17 House Executive Departments and Administration hearing on Senate Bill 243, lawmakers heard testimony on the measure, which recently was approved by the Senate, 16-7.

Sponsored by Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester – who has frequently sponsored such measures throughout his five-term tenure – this version of the legislation is a carefully drawn compromise that won the key endorsement of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of New Hampshire.

“The association has been against licensing all the way through the past sessions of the Legislature, and indeed have fought vehemently against it, because we did not see anything that would solve the problem,” Kendall Buck, executive vice president of the association, told lawmakers at the April 17 hearing.

But he praised this measure, calling it a “very, very carefully crafted work” that addresses the concerns of consumers and the building industry.

The bill would establish a state board to oversee registration of the state’s estimated 13,500 home contractors – covering those engaged in home construction, reconstruction, alteration, renovation or repair. The board would develop a fee system to cover the cost of managing the program.

The bill would make it a misdemeanor to perform any job of $1,500 or more without a registration certificate and number.

The measure also calls for requiring a written contract for any job valued at more than $5,000. It also spells out what each contract should contain at minimum, including the physical address of the business, the project’s anticipated start and completion dates and the materials to be used. In addition, a consumer could decide to rescind the contract up to three days after signing.

Contractors seeking a registration would need to list their physical address, and they would be required to display their registration numbers on all advertisements, contracts and building permits.

But apparently the most controversial component of the bill is its requirement for four hours of continuing education each year for homebuilders. That’s because those who get a certified title through the Home Builders and Remodelers Association would be exempt from the continuing ed requirement.

D’Allesandro said naming the HBRANH and granting the exemption was a prerequisite to getting some regulation of home contractors through the Senate after years of work on the issue.

“The basic premise was to protect the public. In order to get the bill, we had to make compromises,” D’Allesandro said.

‘Exempted group’

While the HBRANH exemption was the key factor in getting the association’s long-withheld support for contractor registration, it also is the reason that Clegg, the former Senate majority leader, opposes the bill.

In fact, Clegg told the hearing that the bill confers special status on the HBRANH.

“This exempted group is held in high regard. I still consider them friends of mine, but this is wrong,” Clegg, who is a licensed home contractor in Connecticut and Massachusetts, told the House committee. “This just creates a real monopoly situation so builders feel they don’t even have much of a choice. Take their courses, pay their fees or get out of the business.”

Clegg also argued that no organization should be granted a special status in state law. “What happens if the new people who take over that organization decide that continuing education is a weekend in Las Vegas?” he said.

Clegg had tried to get rid of the exemption in the Senate, which passed the bill in March, but senators rejected his bid. All 10 Republicans voted to remove the exemption, and all 13 Democrats present voted to keep it in the bill.

“I am ashamed we let this go through the Senate,” Clegg said. “We made a deal we shouldn’t have to put them in. I don’t think we should make such deals.”

But HBRANH officials pointed out that their members already take rigorous courses designed by its national umbrella organization to secure titles of certification, such as graduate master builder.

There’s another reason the association wants to retain its own curriculum, Buck said: Folding it into state-approved education courses could add cost and duplication for members.

“In our view, our courses are far and above what we expect any board to come up with,” Buck said.

Several House committee members said they would prefer that home contractors be required to obtain a license rather than simply register with the state. But Ari Pollack, a lobbyist for the homebuilders, said the group opposes licensing.

“We oppose licensing for fear it would unduly regulate some good contractors,” he said.

Rep. Ann-Marie Irwin, D-Peterborough, the committee’s chairwoman, said the Senate-approved bill might set the proper balance – and suggested that this year’s registration measure may be the first step toward licensing.

“It is not unusual to start with a lower level of regulation and then go up from that at a later date,” Irwin said.

Rep. Alida Millham, R-Gilford, head of the subcommittee reviewing the bill, told the Concord Monitor that the bill will likely be sent to the full House with a recommendation to pass the measure.

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