Prevailing wage requirements like the one under debate in the state legislature are intended to ensure that workers on publicly funded projects are paid a market-level wage, and that contractors, in trying to submit low bids to secure work, don't undercut their employees' pay.
In Pennsylvania, prevailing wages are set by the Department of Labor and Industry, Bureau of Labor Law Compliance, on publicly funded projects of $25,000 or more. That threshold has existed since 1961.
House Republicans and Gov. Tom Corbett, also a Republican, want to increase the threshold to $100,000, exempting anything less costly from the wage requirements. They contend that doing so will enable municipalities to stretch the dollars they devote to smaller transportation improvements.
Putting that change into the transportation funding legislation has alienated some who would otherwise support the legislation -- including some union leaders and several Democrats. It may have caused defeat of a $2.3 billion spending measure on Monday night. Another vote in the House Tuesday passed the funding package.
Ten Democrats from Allegheny County, many of whom who might otherwise have been expected to favor the transportation bill, instead voted no to the bill Tuesday.
Changing the threshold for prevailing wages would have a minimal impact on Pennsylvania Department of Transportation projects, because only a fraction are for less than $100,000. It also would not change the threshold for projects that receive federal funding, currently $2,000.
Mr. Corbett said this about the prevailing wage proposal during a recent visit to Pittsburgh: "Our goal ... is to help local governments who are responsible for 77,000 miles of roadway and have limited means to raise the resources that are needed to adequately take care of those miles of roads. It means an easing of the pressure on them to raise property taxes to pay for local road maintenance."
While some major unions have said they are OK with it, others are opposed, worried it would clear the way for a broader assault by Republicans on wage protection.
Philip Ameris, president and business agent for the Laborers' District Council of Western Pennsylvania, has expressed support for the higher threshold as a gesture of compromise that would secure passage of a transportation funding bill. Estimates are that the bill could create up to 50,000 new jobs, many of them in construction.
Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, has said transportation funding legislation should stand or fall on its merits, without the side issue of prevailing wages.
"This idea that they've got to extract some type of wage cut for workers in order to do the right thing seems absurd to me," he said.
Jon Schmitz: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.