, Corbin, KY

March 7, 2014

Prevailing wage bill dies in committee

The Times-Tribune

 / CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — The state House of Representatives will apparently not vote on a bill to remove the requirement that public school construction projects pay the area’s prevailing wage.

The bill was sponsored by House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, and supporters say its passage would save local school districts and the state several million dollars on school construction projects. Opponents say requiring the prevailing wage for such projects ensures higher work quality and benefits both union and non-union workers’ wages.

But the House Labor and Industry Committee voted 19-1 against the bill Thursday, with one Republican, Jim Steward of Flat Lick, joining 18 Democrats in voting down the bill. Two others, Regina Bunch of Williamsburg and Lynn Bechler of Marion cast “pass” votes. Republican Adam Koenig of Erlanger voted for the bill.

Oddly enough, no one — including Hoover or co-sponsor Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green — testified in support of the measure. Koenig said Hoover was ill and couldn’t attend and had only been informed Wednesday the bill would receive a hearing Thursday. Committee Chairman Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, said he’d told Hoover on Monday.

Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark, D-Louisville, a union member, wasn’t happy neither of the sponsors showed up.

“I think (they) ought to stand up and let everyone know how (they) think this will help the people of Kentucky,” Clark said.

The room was packed with members of the Laborers International Union of North America, including IUNA Kentucky business manager Mitchell Oney of Sandy Hook.

Oney said the union was responsible for bringing University of Utah professor of economics Dr. Peter Phillips to Frankfort to testify against the bill.

Given the make-up of the committee, with its majority of Democrats and the absence of anyone to testify for the bill, that probably wasn’t necessary.

Republicans have made repealing the prevailing wage law and passing a right to work law (which would allow workers at union shops to opt out of the union) part of their agenda and likely part of their campaign strategy this fall when they hope to take over the House majority. Democrats generally oppose both measures, claiming they are anti-union and hurt the middle class.

Phillips told the committee that supporters of repeal overstate cost savings from lower wages on the projects. For such projects to see a 20 to 25 percent reduction in costs, contractors would have to cut wages by 50 percent, he said.

He also claimed neighboring states that have repealed prevailing wage requirements for public projects have not seen a significant per-foot cost reduction.

Phillips said it wouldn’t just be union laborers who would suffer from repeal: “Approximately one-half of workers who will be affected by prevailing wage are non-union workers.”

Koenig told Phillips that the prevailing wage (which is determined by state senatorial districts) ranges from $21.75 in Kenton County in northern Kentucky to $38.96 in Pike County in eastern Kentucky. “That seems fairly out of whack,” Koenig said.

Phillips responded that such disparities usually have more to do with small statistical samples rather than actual market conditions. Some Democrats pointed out Pike County is a major coal-producing county. That, they said, draws workers who might otherwise go into construction and consequently there is a short supply of construction workers in the county. Higher wages are necessary to attract skilled laborers from farther away.

Union members applauded as nearly every Democrat voting to kill the bill took time to “explain” his or her vote, each praising the work of unions and their members.

“I’m tickled to death,” said Oney after the vote, acknowledging the vote is likely to be reversed if Republicans gain control of the House.

“Oh, yeah, they’d reverse it in a hurry,” Oney said. “But we’re working very hard to see they don’t (win control).”