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The Charleston Gazette
Legislation to recalculate West Virginia’s long-standing formula for setting prevailing wages for workers on publicly funded construction projects, and to repeal prevailing wage on projects costing less than $500,000 (SB 361) advanced to the House floor from the Government Organization Committee on a largely party-line 17-8 vote. Committee members rejected amendments offered by Democratic members to lower the threshold for prevailing wage to contracts of $500,000 or more, as well as several attempts to push back the July 1 deadline to have the newly calculated prevailing wage rates in place. Proponents of the bill argue that the existing prevailing wage system, which dates back to the Great Depression of the 1930s, artificially inflates wages for construction workers on many public works projects, adding to the cost of schools, state, county and municipal buildings and other nonhighways construction projects. Committee Democrats argued, however, that the bill would hurt the state’s economy, by lowering wages for working people and by allowing out-of-state contractors using transient labor to underbid in-state businesses for public contracts. “I’ve heard from as many companies as workers that this is going to put them out of business,” Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said, adding, “I came here to raise all boats, not just the yachts.” As has occurred during Senate deliberations, construction workers and contractors packed the committee room and spilled out into the East Wing hallway of the Capitol. “Look these people in the eye when you walk out. Don’t hang your head low,” Delegate Jeff Eldridge, D-Lincoln, told committee members prior to the vote to advance the bill. Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, said the effect of the legislation would be to drive down the state’s already low median household income. “We’re putting profits ahead of people,” he said. “This is not moving West Virginia forward in any manner.” Committee members, also on largely party line votes, rejected amendments to lower the $500,000 threshold in the bill to either $100,000 or $250,000. Delegate Michael Ferro, D-Marshall, noted that, at a Feb. 19 public hearing on the bill, a number of contractors testified that the $500,000 threshold is too high and would eliminate prevailing wage for many commonly contracted projects, including most roofing and heating and cooling equipment projects. Also defeated were several amendments to push back deadlines in the bill, including a June 1 deadline for the Business and Economic Research centers at Marshall and West Virginia universities to come up with a new methodology for calculating prevailing wages, and a July 1 deadline for Workforce West Virginia to set the wages, county by county, for the various construction trades. Jennifer Shand, director of the center at Marshall, told legislators that much of the wage data needed to come up with a formula is readily available. “I feel confident we can meet the June 1 deadline for delivering a methodology,” she told the committee. Shand said she couldn’t say if the wage rates could be set by the July 1 deadline until the methodology for calculating them is finalized. A committee amendment adopted Wednesday states that if the new prevailing wage rates are not adopted by July 1, there will be no prevailing wage rate in the state until the new rates are approved. Steve White, of the ACT Foundation, said he has concerns about allowing the prevailing wage to lapse, particularly with the possibility that, on the same job site, employees of the building contractor could be earning prevailing wage, while employees of subcontractors subsequently awarded contracts would be paid at a lower rate. “There’s a lot of talk about transparency and making sure it’s a wage rate everyone can have confidence in,” White said, expressing concern over legislators’ refusal to push back the deadlines. Delegate Rupie Phillips, D-Logan, was the lone Democrat on committee to vote in favor of the bill. Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1220.