Home improvement contract bill evolves in Senate

What started out as a bill to crack down on home improvement contractors has morphed into a bill that could allow contractors to press charges against unscrupulous homeowners.

The state Senate last week amended House Bill 177, which was originally a bill that spelled out the terms that should be included in a home improvement contract – which should be written for any projects valued at $5,000 or more — and said that violations of the requirements would be evidence of violations of the state Consumer Protection Act. The bill also would enable the attorney general’s office to “pierce the corporate veil” and go after a contractor individually.

But Senate Majority Leader Bob Clegg, a former contractor, introduced an amendment that spelled out criminal penalties for both the contractor and the homeowner.

A homeowner could be charged with a misdemeanor or even a felony if he or she alters the work of the contractor with the purpose to obstruct a claim by the contractor.

“It would appear that if you tried to fix a contractor’s leaky roof, you could go to jail for a year,” said Sen. Sylvia Larsen.

Clegg, however, said that she was misreading the amendment, which he said was meant to prevent homeowners from intentionally altering evidence, or though confiscating products that the contractor installed without paying for them.

“If you don’t think contractors are consumers, see who is buying the stuff in the lumberyard. The contractor is the little guy. And if he does the work, you can’t steal what he did. He has the right to justice just like the homeowner,” Clegg said.

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, however, said that the whole idea that the bill would be used against a homeowner was “mind-boggling.”

“This drives me bananas. My neighbor gets the shaft, and he gets sued for getting screwed. What the heck are we doing here?”

In the end, the bill was tabled, but oddly many of Clegg’s fellow Republicans – while preferring his amendment — really didn’t want any bill, arguing that the attorney general already had enough power to go after contractors. Democrats voted against the tabling motion because they wanted to talk about their own amendment, which would put back the right for consumers to sue for triple damages to enforce the act.

In other business related legislation the Senate:

• Passed a bill that would allow the court to force those who file frivolous lawsuits to pay for delaying a public works project. Supporters said that this was to prevent environmental groups from continuing to delay projects, such as the widening of Interstate 93.

Opponents said that those wishing to challenge a project shouldn’t risk having to pay millions of dollars to bring their grievances before the court. This was attached to a bill that would allow the state to hire private collection agencies to go after bad debt.

• Passed a bill that would allow horse and dog tracks to run races on only 50 calendar days, as opposed to the current 100 days, in order to promote gambling. Supporters said that there are not enough horses to promote quality racing, and that it will help the tracks, help racing and thereby maintain the state’s revenues. Senate President Ted Gatsas, who owns a business that breeds thoroughbreds, went on the floor to speak against it said that it actually will allow racetracks to reduce live racing, and turn the tracks into off track betting parlors. The Senate passed it anyway, 18-5.

• Passed a bill that would allow electricians to hire two apprentices. Supporters said it would create more opportunity for electricians. Opponents said that it was just a way or large electrical contractors to hire cheaper labor.

• Killed a bill that would have placed a moratorium on any future large groundwater withdrawals by bottled water companies.

• Passed a bill that increases the fees for many business filings for the corporate bureau of the secretary of state. – BOB SANDERS

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