The co-authors of a bill repealing the state’s prevailing wage laws said at a hearing Monday the requirements artificially increase the costs of construction projects.
But Dems and union members slammed the bill as an attack on workers that would drive down wages. Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Kenosha, said it would exacerbate income inequality in the state.
“Your bill makes it worse, driving people out of the middle class by cutting wages,” Wirch told the bill’s GOP co-authors, Sen. Leah Vukmir and Rep. Rob Hutton.
Vukmir and Hutton said prevailing wage laws, which set minimum salaries for construction projects, make those projects more expensive and shut out many non-union firms from bidding on them.
Repealing the requirements, Vukmir said, would lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in savings over the years.
“Government shouldn’t be paying for inflated wages on the backs of all taxpayers,” Vukmir told the Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform.
Republicans last session repealed prevailing wages on local government projects, though the partial repeal didn’t apply to state construction projects.
Gov. Scott Walker proposed a full repeal in his budget, but the Joint Finance Committee removed it as a non-fiscal policy item. Walker told reporters today at the Capitol that he backs a repeal whether it happens in the budget or in a separate bill.
“As long as it happens, I think that’s one more tool to make sure the taxpayers get a better bang for their buck,” Walker said.
Several union members spoke in opposition to the bill, saying it would lead to lower wages and layoffs as local companies find it harder to compete with out-of-state firms that underbid them.
“That money will not stay here, will not be earned by local people,” said Dan Bukiewicz, the president of the Milwaukee Building & Construction Trades Council.
Leroy Miller, an Army veteran who works in the construction industry, said the proposal would hurt his family’s finances and could lead him to moving to another state.
“I will gladly fight for America, and I guess I’m going to have to fight for this because it’s my life,” he said.
Opponents also questioned the authors’ claims that the move would lead to savings, with Stephanie Bloomingdale, the secretary-treasurer of Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, saying prevailing wages ensure that skilled workers “build high-quality lasting infrastructure safely and on time.” She said supporters’ “back-of-the-envelope math” fails to take that into account.
But supporters said the state would see significant savings, partly due to the increased competition on public bidding projects.
John Schulze, a lobbyist for the mostly non-union Associated Builders and Contractors, said many small businesses decide against bidding on those projects because they “may not have the compliance back-office to deal with the overregulation” of those jobs.
Eric Bott, state director of the conservative Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin, said other states that have repealed their laws have seen significant savings. Doing so in Wisconsin, he said, would save the state money that it could then use on more construction projects and lead to more people getting hired.
The repeal, he said, is crucial given the current budget talks on transportation funding.
“We feel like it’s more important now more than ever before to consider this reform as a means of stretching taxpayers dollars further,” Bott said.