Since last year, state authorities have conducted sting operations to enforce a new, literal interpretation of a 2005 law that bars sign companies from selling electric signs unless they are owned by master electricians or employ one.
Luis Escobar, who has owned his FASTSIGNS franchise in South Austin for 15 years, has stopped selling electric signs because he wants to subcontract the installation to a master election — a violation of state law.
The dispute over employing versus subcontracting master electricians has split the sign industry in Texas and spilled over at the Capitol.
The Texas Sign Association, dominated by master sign electricians, favors the tougher regulation while FASTSIGNS, which has 58 stores statewide, is supporting legislation to allow subcontracting again.
Each side accuses the other of trying to get an advantage on the competition.
“They have essentially created a monopoly of sorts,” Catherine Monson, CEO of FASTSIGNS Inc., said of the Texas Sign Association.
Although electric signs only account for 5 percent of FASTSIGNS’ revenue, Monson SAID customers are looking for the lowest price and the greatest convenience as they shop for vinyl banners, building or yard signs and electric signs.
“The customer doesn’t want to go to one supplier for one type of sign and another for an electric sign,” she said.
That’s particularly true for corporations who can buy their signs from out-of-state firms, through the Internet, Monson argued.
Leona Stabler, executive director of the Texas Sign Association, said FASTSIGNS is trying to escape regulation altogether.
“If Texas creates a law, it should be able to enforce it,” Stabler said. “If the exemption (for subcontracting) passes, no one needs a license or worry about public safety.”
Monson called that disingenuous, saying FASTSIGNS always subcontracted with master electricians, and that the law already allows 23 exemptions from the need to put a master electrician on staff, including pool contractors who subcontract electrical work.
Stabler suggested that FASTSIGNS hire master electricians as part-time employees — a solution that Monson said is impractical.
She said there are 1,500 sign companies in Texas: “How are you going to find 1,500 part-time master electricians?”
Both agree there is a problem with rogue sign companies installing electric signs without using a master electrician.
Bill Kuntz, executive director of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations, blamed a “quirk in the wording” of the 2005 law for the controversy.
But he also cited a recent fire at a North Austin restaurant as the reason for requiring master sign electricians. Kuntz said the agency is still investigating whether the fire was caused by improper installation.
“We’ve had some cases where people were installing signs without master electricians,” Kuntz said.
To enforce the law, state regulators pose as customers to see whether companies are complying.
But does it really matter whether the installer is on staff or a subcontractor as long as the installer is a master electrician?
State Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy, doesn’t think so.
“This interpretation is not what we intended,” Callegari said of the 2005 law. “It guts the concept of subcontracting.”
Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, has filed the same legislation allowing subcontracting. Her bill, SB 803, is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Business and Commerce Committee on Tuesday.
Without a change in the law, Monson said, “We’re all out of the electric sign business.”