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“I’ve seen some horrible, horrible contractors out there with a license. That makes me wonder how the hell did they got licensed? It’s just more fees to pay for nothing.” says a customer who was unhappy with some of his work filed a claim against him 20 years ago. That came up on the TRCC background check and scuttled his registration. “Anyone can file anything against you at any time if they want to,” Capehart says. “So the state comes up [and] instead of them checking what kind of building you do, the quality of your work, they look at the record and go by it, even if it was 20 years ago.” The rules governing the commission’s ability to revoke registrations are rather subjective. Texas law gives the TRCC discretion to license builders it deems trustworthy, honest, and competent, Fortner says. The commission can deny a registration because of a criminal history. But the agency can also revoke a registration if it has reason to believe from complaints to the commission or from lawsuitsthat a builder isn’t trustworthy. While Perry Homes has faced numerous legal challenges for lemon homes, it has not lost its license. “There’s been very few complaints, to my knowledge, filed against that particular company with the commission;’ Fortner says. “We have to look at every instance on a case-by-case basis.” What angers Capehart even more is that the agency kept his money after it denied his registration. Builders must pay $500 for their initial registration and a $300 renewal fee every two years. While companies like Perry Homes have no trouble paying, the fee is not inconsiderable for small firms. Some builders wonder what they’re getting in return. The registration is virtually meaningless to consumers because the TRCC isn’t performing actual regulation; it siphons out builders with criminal records, but does little to find out who actually produces good work. “I could be a bad builder today, and they’d never know it and give me a license,” Capehart says. “I thought it was way too much for what you’re getting. The max I’ve ever paid for permits was $200, $300. I thought, `Man they’re making a killing off this deal: It’s just making money off your occupation?’ The commission is a moneymaker for the state. Fortner says the TRCC’s registration fees generate cash the commission pours back into the state’s general revenue fund. A report by the comptroller’s office last year projected that TRCC would produce more than $5 million in profit in 2007. That money could pay for a robust regulatory structure if state lawmakers simply plowed it back into the agency. So far they’ve chosen not to. Nevertheless, Fortner says enforcement has improved. The TRCC has begun as many as 1,300 enforcement casesincluding fines and registration denialsin the past 18 months, according to the TRCC Web site, for offenses as serious as fraud and as minor as not advising the commission of an address change. “I think we’re doing a pretty good job with the number of folks we have, especially when you see the spike in enforcement activity that the commission has undergone;’ Fortner says. Lawmakers filed numerous bills this session to reform the TRCC. Consumer groups backed legislation by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat, that she dubbed a Home Lemon Law. It would provide home buyers more protections, and it is withering in the House. Instead, the House passed House Bill 1038 by Nederland Democrat, Allan Ritter, who sponsored the original legislation in 2003 that created the TRCC. Though consumer groups aren’t in love with it, Ritter’s bill gives the commission considerably more enforcement power. It would empower the agency to track down builders who haven’t registered or are working without registrations. The commission could send ceaseand-desist letters to wayward builders, and could assess fines as high as $1,000 a day on builders who don’t comply. The legislation would also let TRCC force builders to make repairs. Though the bill gives the agency much sharper teeth, it provides only six new employees and about $500,000 in additional funding. That would leave the commission still short on staff and resources. As the Observer went to press, HB 1038 was pending before a Senate committee. Meanwhile, Chandler, the Houston contractor, doesn’t see any reason to register unless the TRCC plans to actually regulate the industry. ” [There are] no benefits. All you do is get a license number,” he says. “There’s a shitload of contractors out there that don’t know how to build a home but have a license from TRCC.” Observer intern A.J. Bauer is a very recent graduate from the University of Texas. Intern Jun Wang contributed to this article. MAY 18, 2007 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19