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Prevailing Wage for Transportation Projects Should End, Some Republicans Say

Prevailing wage laws drive up the cost of public projects, but unions favor them because they provide higher pay for workers.

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG – If the state is going to spend $1.8 billion on new roads and bridges, it should get the most bang for those big bucks.

That’s the argument some conservative Republicans in the state House are making with regard to Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed transportation funding initiative.  They say they want to make changes to the state’s prevailing wage law to be included in the transportation funding package that the General Assembly is expected to work on during the spring.

Pennsylvania’s prevailing-wage law sets standard wages and benefits for all government-funded construction projects that cost more than $25,000.

The wages are determined on a county-by-county basis and vary widely across the state, but they generally result in wages at least 10 percent higher than on non-prevailing wage projects in the same area, according to data from local government groups.

Because the prevailing wage requires a premium that can drive up the cost of public projects, changes to the law should be considered to ensure taxpayers are getting as much as possible out of the new transportation funding plan, state Rep. Gordon Denlinger, R-Lancaster, said.

“If state government moves forward with a plan to fix roads and bridges through taxing more at the pump, we must work the spending side through enacting long-overdue reforms to the prevailing wage system,” Denlinger said.

Denlinger is the prime sponsor of legislation in the state House that would do away with the prevailing wage entirely. He said Friday that he will push for the inclusion of prevailing wage reforms in final transportation plan as well.

But Democrats and labor unions would oppose such changes and their inclusion could complicate the politics of passing the transportation plan this spring.

There is reason to think adding prevailing wage changes to the transportation package would complicate the legislative process for what could otherwise be a bipartisan deal on transportation funding.

In fact, it may have to be bipartisan, because there may not be enough of the majority Republicans willing to put up votes for the gasoline tax increase pitched by Corbett.

Bill Patton, spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said a Republican effort to link prevailing wage changes to the transportation package would be the “worst kind of mistake.”

“It would be almost impossible for Democrats and a good number of Republicans to support a bill that includes that kind of language,” Patton said.

Other opponents of prevailing-wage reforms point out that it would unnecessarily complicate the legislation without changing much — any state transportation projects funded with federal cash would be subject to federal prevailing-wage laws, enshrined in the Davis-Bacon Act, regardless of any changes the state might enact.

Lawmakers should take steps to protect every dollar of taxpayer investment, said Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based free market think tank that favors overhauling the prevailing-wage rules.

“Prevailing-wage reform should absolutely be included,” he said.  “And if it won’t have any impact, then why is there so much opposition to it?”

Labor unions oppose changes to the prevailing-wage laws because they ensure higher levels of pay for their members on public projects.  Unions also argue that prevailing-wage requirements ensure the most skilled laborers are used on public projects, making sure the taxpayers are getting the finest quality in exchange for the extra cost.

The Keystone Research Center, a liberal think tank in Harrisburg, argues that raising the wage threshold or eliminating it completely would result in a younger, less well-trained workforce making lower wages and benefits.

But that’s not a good argument against making changes to protect taxpayers, others say.

State Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland, another advocate for overhauling the prevailing-wage law, dismissed the notion that it would make the transportation package more difficult to pass.

“The politics of the transportation plan are already complicated, but I don’t see why including common sense reforms to save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars on local road work would make it harder to pass,” he said. “If anything, prevailing wage reform and improved efficiency should strengthen grassroots support for the plan, especially from the many rural stakeholders across the commonwealth.”

Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

Dot Clark February 26, 2013 at 03:18 PM
Just because you're paying prevailing wages, doesn't mean that you're getting quality work.
FSHNT21 February 27, 2013 at 12:22 AM
The Union argument is almost comical... Prevailing wages were established as a kiss up to the unions in the first place... As a result, projects that could have been done just as well and less expensively by non-union companies have been held hostage in deference to the unions because the State does not want to deal with their intimidation and thug tactics... Since unions only exist to protect the drones and the fact that Nationwide, union employees make up less than 20% of the workforce, it's far past time to syop kissing their proverbial butts and get the taxpayers some relief from their stranglehold on State contracts....
Sunday Scotch February 27, 2013 at 01:03 AM
Stranglehold on state contracts? Far from it. Prevailing wage does not require union labor, it eliminates labor rates as a bargaining chip in contract bidding, so the guy with the truckload of day laborers (who don't pay taxes) is on the same footing as the guy paying actual Americans. Whoever bids the lowest for the contract gets it. Not who or who is not union. Turns out when slave wages aren't involved, contractors prefer an American workforce, making middle-class pay, and paying taxes. Who knew?
Robert Hasty February 27, 2013 at 03:40 AM
Republicans want to lower workers rights and wages? Well there's a big surprise huh? They are destroying this country and thats a proven fact.
P2YA February 27, 2013 at 02:23 PM
Let's by all means not complicate the budget process when drivers can simply dig deeper at the pump. Anyway, what are the other four guys watching the one guy work going to do on non-prevailing wage projects where certain customary union positions could be deemed unnecessary?
FSHNT21 February 27, 2013 at 06:42 PM
The lowest bid gets the contract... Wages as a bargaining chip.... That has to be a union members answer If a non-union company bidding on a State job has employee's willing to work at the wages their employers are paying them to do a job, how is that a "Bargaining chip in contract bidding"...? The employees of the non-union company agreed to work for that company doing a specified job for specified wages that, evidentl, y were agreeable to both parties... And the low bidder gets the contract. While that may be, if the low bidder is a non- union contractor, you can count on several hundred union thugs showing up at the site to protest that the contract was not awarded to a union company (in most cases because they have effectively priced themselves out of work with their inflated wage scales) and intimidate workers and vendors and vandalize the site and the equipment in an effort to force the State or the employer to hire on members of the union... If you think this is off base, just ask the State or even a private company if that isn't the case..... typical union tactic. This even takes place when not a single union company even bothers to bid on the contract. their sense of entitlement is incredible...
the truth February 27, 2013 at 06:44 PM
Prevailing wage laws were enacted in the early 1960’s with bipartisan support. The intent was and still is to eliminate greedy contractors from importing cheap out of state labor and or exploiting immigrants both legal and illegal. The practice of exploiting workers undercuts local business and the wages they pay their local employees The hard truth is, there are many more unorganized workers on prevailing wage jobs than organized. Regardless of their affiliation these folks are middle class workers. Now I read our republican elected officials want to raise tax’s at the pump and lower wages for the middle class, Many of whom could be republicans. Or do they? Somebody correct me here if I am wrong but isn’t “no new tax’s” or “lower tax’s” a republican battle cry. Does it make sense for the governor to raise gas tax’s before his re-election? Of course not! So why not sabotage your own bill by including prevailing wage reform? When the democrats and liberal republicans vote the transportation bill down the governor can blame them for his failure during his run for re-election . Here one remedy, stop wasting transportation funds on road side flowers and recreational bike trails and fix the darn road and bridges!

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