Conservatives working to repeal prevailing wage law
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HARRISBURG -- State legislators are caught in a squeeze between conservative groups that want to repeal Pennsylvania's 50-year-old "prevailing wage law" and construction unions, which are fighting hard to retain it.
The first step toward repeal is expected this week, when the House is to vote on a measure that would narrow significantly the number of publicly funded construction projects covered by the law.
The law, enacted in 1961, requires school districts, counties and towns to pay prevailing wages, which often means union wages, to employees hired for public construction projects.
Critics complain that the law -- which is supported by many Democrats and unions -- unnecessarily drives up the labor costs on projects and thus the financial burden on taxpayers. The law requires prevailing wages to be paid to workers on all public construction projects costing more than $25,000.
The fight over the law has brought together some unusual allies, such as Matt Brouillette, head of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, and Tom Gentzel, director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
They're usually at odds over issues such as state-funded vouchers for private school students. But now they're both supporting Republican legislators' efforts to weaken and eventually eliminate the prevailing wage law. They call the law "antiquated, expensive and unfair."
The 1961 law results in "inflated wages" paid for projects, Mr. Brouillette said last week. He contends that, on average, prevailing wages paid on public projects around Pennsylvania "are much higher than the regular Pennsylvania construction wages for identical work on private projects."
Mr. Gentzel added, "Because public schools are being asked to do more with less [state] money, Gov. Tom Corbett and the General Assembly must give them the [financial] tools they need to meet the challenge."
Action is expected on House Bill 1329, which would raise that cost threshold on prevailing-wage projects to $185,000. Another bill would exempt all school districts from the prevailing wage requirement.
Some Republicans want to make the new threshold even higher, perhaps $500,000, but $185,000 was reached as a compromise to attract middle-of-the-roaders and get the bill to the Senate. Because the GOP runs both chambers and Mr. Corbett is Republican, chances to weaken the prevailing wage law are the best they've been in years.
Rep. Ron Miller, R-York, said, "It's time to make changes to this outdated law. Counties, school districts and municipalities don't have the money on their own to fund projects -- it's the taxpayers who foot the bill."
Construction unions defend the law, saying, in essence, "you get what you pay for." They claim lower-paid electricians, carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers and other construction workers will do inferior work compared with higher-paid, better trained workers -- a claim that Mr. Brouillette disputes.
Supporters of the law say it gets skilled laborers on construction jobs "and builds up the American middle class by paying workers proper wages," said Muhlenberg College professor/pollster Christopher Borick. "They argue it's good for society to have a large, vibrant middle class."
Frank Sirianni, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, said he finds it "appalling that we have legislators making hundreds of thousands of dollars in public wages but they want to cut the wages of middle-class construction workers." He urged union workers "to call your legislators, Facebook them, tweet them to oppose these bills."
House Democratic spokesman Brett Marcy said the new bills "have nothing to do with saving money for local governments and taxpayers, but everything to do with protecting the interests of corporations and wealthy business owners."
Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, said he'd be willing to discuss minor changes in prevailing wage -- such as exempting neighborhood street-face repairs costing up to $60,000 -- "but the conservative element uses a bill like that to try to do away with the whole law. The real agenda of the conservative Republicans is to lower wages and hurt the quality of life for working-class people."
One issue about the law is how prevailing wages are determined. State officials collect construction company wage data from regions around the state to determine the prevailing wage for labor specialties in a region.
Companies that use union workers pay higher wages than nonunion firms. With salary and benefits, union workers can receive $50 an hour or more, while nonunion firms may pay $20-30 an hour.
Nonunion firms seem more reluctant to report their hourly wages to the state than union firms are, perhaps because nonunion firms fear losing workers to unionized firms once wage data are publicized.
But construction unions say it's not their fault that unionized firms report to the state while nonunion firms don't. This is why prevailing wage rates are often called union wages.
Rep. John Bear, R-Lancaster, who wants to repeal the law, held a recent online seminar on the subject and one participant was Jeffrey Mummert, business manager for a school district in Hanover, York County.
"He said a roofer in his county typically earns $14 to $18 an hour [without benefits] on a typical roofing project," Mr. Bear said. "But because of prevailing wage laws, a roofer in his county earned $30 an hour on that same type of [publicly funded] roofing project."
Mr. Mummert then asked the roofer if he works harder on higher-wage projects "and he said no," according to Mr. Bear.
More information about efforts to change the prevailing wage law are available at RepBear.com.
First Published April 1, 2012 12:00 am