Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes last week appointed a 15-member task force to study possible changes in the laws covering the Maryland home improvement industry in an effort to get recommendations agreeable to consumers and contractors.
Past attempts to tighten state controls on the home improvement industry in Maryland--where state authorities estimate there are more unlicensed than licensed contractors--have been derailed by bickering among interest groups in the corridors of the state house.
But now, with a group assembled that includes all interested constituencies, Maryland legislators are hopeful that details and compromises can be worked out in time to be incorporated in a new home improvement bill to be considered by the 1984 legislative session.
"The trick to all commissions is their makeup, and the reason this task force was put together was to get better consumer protections," said state Sen. John A. Pica (D-Baltimore City). "I'm sure the governor has balanced this one, which should mean we'll reach some consensus."
The task force includes 3 Maryland state senators and 3 delegates, along with 6 industry and 3 consumer representatives. Michael Thompson, a task force member and executive director of the Suburban Home Builders of Maryland, said that three representatives from each house were included instead of the customary two because of intense interest among legislators to serve on the task force.
Thompson said he believes a small, manageable task force will enable competing interests to sift through a number of different proposals for changing the laws, and possibly even come up with solutions to problems that have plagued the industry for years.
Issues Thompson's group would like resolved in any proposed legislation include finding ways to enforce the state's controls, setting standards for work to be done by home improvement contractors and getting better coordination among the state agencies that oversee the industry.
"As it is right now, a contractor is licensed by the state, gets his permit from the county, while another county agency inspects work, and consumer complaints are made through yet another county office," said Thompson. "With that kind of system, too many people can fall through the cracks."
One issue that has sparked disagreements among contractor and consumer representatives in the past is whether the state should establish a guarantee fund to finance completion of remodeling jobs left unfinished by contractors.
One of the tasks of the committee will be to research other states to see if there are any ideas that could work in Maryland, and Thompson said he believes a look at some fresh solutions for the enforcement problem could push the issue of the guarantee fund to the side.
But consumer advocates question whether consumers can be protected without some sort of guarantee fund, and they are supporting one that would be administered through the state to relieve consumers from having to go through the courts to get relief.
"We have looked at a lot of the information gathered from other states already," said Barbara Gregg, a member of the State Consumer Council and the task force. "I'm not saying there aren't some new solutions out there, but I think that most of the problems we have had in the past are because there is no place for the consumer to go when they have a problem. That's why the guarantee fund is a crucial issue."
Hughes has asked the group to send him quarterly reports on its progress and come up with recommendations to be forwarded to the legislature by next December.