By Gary Joseph Wilson | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Prevailing wage will not prevail, or so statehouse Republicans hope.
It’s the $2.5-billion question that could make, or break, the state Senate-passed transportation funding bill.
Some state House Republicans have seemed reluctant to accept the Senate-approved transportation funding bill, but could be more amenable thanks to a recent amendment with a multitude of modifications.
Possibly the most contentious part of the proposed amendment would change Pennsylvania’s prevailing-wage laws as they relate to road maintenance.
Currently, all publicly funded construction projects that exceed $25,000 must pay workers the state-mandated prevailing wage rate. A sort of inflated minimum wage, prevailing-wage laws ensure state and municipal governments pay local union rates for labor, even if they don’t employ union labor. Prevailing-wage rates are generally higher than the private-market rate.
Under the amendment, municipal and county governments would not have to pay the prevailing wage for road construction work in which at least 85 percent of the total cost is related to materials or “repair.”
House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said the was reform was included “basically to allow curbs and potholes to be exempted from prevailing wage.”
Potentially, it could make it cheaper for the local governments to make basic repairs.
“We think it’s obviously reasonable, and anyone who says it’s not part of transportation is foolish,” Miskin said.
For as adamant as Miskin was in declaring the reform as being about potholes, Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale was equally adamant in saying the reform was actually about major road work.
The amendment defines “repair” not just as filling potholes or fixing curbs, but also laying asphalt on existing roads, as well performing milling work and raising shoulder.
In addition, the amendment defines bridge resurfacing as repair.
Bloomingdale argued that the prevailing-wage law ensures government authorities use well-trained workers for vital infrastructure projects.
The labor chief said any savings from the reform would be minimal because labor is such a small cost of road repair. He added that if the government began using unskilled labor, the time it took for repairs to be completed would increase, thus negating any potential savings.
For the left, as much as anything, stopping prevailing-wage reform is about protecting the middle class.
“Why do they want to drive people into poverty?” Bloomingdale asked.
Others see reforming prevailing-wage laws as a way to empower local governments.
Elizabeth Stelle, a policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank, pointed to the struggles being felt by school districts and municipal governments. She argued that increased flexibility would allow those entities to choose how they manage their money, and pursue long neglected projects that were rendered unaffordable by the prevailing-wage law.
The Commonwealth Foundation estimates Pennsylvania could save as much as $2 billion in construction costs by eliminating the prevailing-wage law.
Regardless of intent, prevailing-wage reform is stirring emotion on both sides of the aisle.
The House amendment to Senate Bill 1 was distributed Monday at a House Transportation Committee meeting. But before any debate could begin on the 110-page amendment, the meeting screeched to a halt because of a drafting error in the manuscript.
The House Transportation Committee also canceled a scheduled meeting on Tuesday.
Despite the lack of formal debate, Republicans have been on the defensive early on the amendment.
On June 21, The Patriot-News published an editorial criticizing the potential changes as “lacking common sense.”
Miskin was quick to fire back.
“And there goes the PatriotNews again … publishes an editorial without talking to anyone … and not knowing what they speak!” Miskin tweeted on June 23.
Though the reform could boost support among GOP house members, it would do so at the expense of alienating the Democratic minority.
Before a small gathering of reporters Monday at the statehouse, House Minority Transportation Chair Rep. Michael P. McGeehan, D-Philadelphia, suggested the GOP was filling the amendment with “ideological bombs” to kill Democrat support for the bill after getting cold feet about raising taxes.
House Democratic leaders have made it clear they will not support Senate Bill 1 if it includes prevailing-wage language, and will pull all their votes on the measure.
Whether House Republicans can pass the amendment on their own remains to be seen as lawmakers enter into the homestretch of budget season.
For his part, House Transportation Chair Rep. Dick Hess, R-Bedford, said he was “concerned with the committee vote.”
Hess had hoped to hold a committee meeting on Wednesday morning, but the meeting has been delayed.