Democrats and unions say a GOP push to eliminate prevailing wage requirements on public projects would send skilled workers out of state and further erode the middle class.
Republican state lawmakers say their proposal would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Wisconsin Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory reform held a public hearing in April on a proposal to end minimum salary requirements on state construction projects.
The Legislature in 2015 ended prevailing wage on local projects, which took effect earlier this year.
State Sen. Leah Vukmir, the bill’s sponsor, said her measure would increase competition by giving non-union firms the chance to bid on public projects.
Republican Rep. Rob Hutton, a cosponsor, said prevailing wage requirements increase the costs of building projects by 10 to 15 percent.
“We have an income inequality issue in this country. Your bill makes it worse,” said Democratic state Sen. Robert Wirch.
Business interests, including the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, support the measure.
Eric Bott, a lobbyist for Americans for Prosperity of Wisconsin, said repealing the law would make taxpayer money go farther.
“Repealing prevailing wage laws reduces construction costs directly by eliminating hyper-inflated super-wages and indirectly by injecting greater competition into bidding,” he said.
Opposition to the legislation
But Democrats and union workers argue repealing prevailing wage on state projects would hurt middle-class workers.
Several union workers testified against the measure, saying it would drive skilled workers and veterans elsewhere.
Dan Bukiewicz, president of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council, said removing the prevailing wages would open the door for firms from other states to win work and decrease local workers’ wages.
“A few lawmakers seem to feel that the way to achieve prosperity is by slashing middle-class workers’ wages,” Bukiewicz said.
“This race-to-the-bottom economic strategy means exactly what it says,” added Dave Branson of the South Central Building Trades Council. “But if Republicans truly believe cutting wages is key to economic growth, we challenge them to put their money where their collective mouths are and first cut their own lavish ‘prevailing wage’ package.” He was referring to the part-time legislators getting an annual salary of $50,950 and qualifying as full-time employees for retirement and health benefits — a total package worth $75,000.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker in his budget proposed eliminating it for state projects, but the budget committee stripped out that proposal along with others that the Legislative Fiscal Bureau deemed non-fiscal policy items earlier this month.
That prompted Vukmir and Hutton to introduce a standalone bill.
Walker has said he didn’t care that the measure was removed from his budget and introduced as a bill as long as it passed.
Eliminating prevailing wage, he said, would be “one more tool to make sure taxpayers get a better bang for their buck.”
A 2015 analysis by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau said research on the impact of prevailing wage laws on construction costs is “mixed and inconclusive,” with findings ranging from small cost savings to insignificant differences.
Twenty states do not have prevailing wage laws. The federal government — for now — still requires prevailing wages on projects paid for with federal funds.
For the record…
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, issued the following statement after the hearing on a proposal to end minimum salary requirements on state construction projects:
“Once again, Gov. Scott Walker and Wisconsin Republicans are putting corporate cash and the 1 percent ahead of working families. This bill to eliminate prevailing wage requirements for public projects will literally take money out of people’s pockets and could allow companies to bring low-wage workers from out of state, undercutting wages throughout our state.
“We also know this legislation will do little to improve Wisconsin’s roads, which are ranked as one of the worst in the country. I hope my former colleagues in the Wisconsin legislature see this for what it is, another boost for big business that winds up costing working Wisconsin families, and reject it.”
Earlier in April, Pocan — along with Democartic U.S. Reps. Mark DeSaulnier of California, Debbie Dingell of Michigan and Donald Norcross of New Jersey — held a “Future of Work, Wages, and Labor” discussion at UW-Madison with academic professionals, policymakers, and labor representatives from around the country.
This was the first Wisconsin event in a series of discussions and town halls that are being held this year in congressional districts across the country.
Following the discussion on the UW-Madison campus, a listening session with labor leaders and local workers was held in Janesville, hometown of U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan.
— Lisa Neff