Bill would allow schools to be exempt from prevailing wage

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A bill that would allow school districts within most Missouri counties to exempt themselves from the state's prevailing-wage law is viewed by some as a common-sense measure, but others think it's a first step toward undermining the law entirely.

The state's prevailing-wage law establishes a minimum rate that must be paid to workers on projects constructed by or on behalf of state and local public bodies. House Bill 34, or the "School Construction Act," would allow school districts in any county -- except those with a charter form of government -- to opt out of prevailing hourly wage requirements for the construction and maintenance of their public school buildings.

The bill took another step toward becoming law when it passed the House Rules Committee in Jefferson City on Wednesday. Supporters say it would save school districts money and allow local contractors to bid on and receive more projects.

State Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, said small, local contractors can't compete under existing prevailing-wage laws.

"It's often large contractors from St. Louis or from out-of-state who can put up the money to pay prevailing wage," Rehder said. "Local contractors who could otherwise compete are shut out of the process. Under this bill, school boards won't be bound by prevailing wage and can create a level playing field."

In Cape Girardeau, $40 million of bond-financed work in the Cape Girardeau School District approved in April 2010 went to a mix of local and nonlocal contractors.

The prevailing-wage rate differs by county in Missouri and includes wage rates for different types of work. For example, in Cape Girardeau County, the prevailing wage for a carpenter is $22.12 per hour, and for an electrician it's $31 per hour. Pipe-fitters can receive $34.25 per hour for their work, and painters can earn $20.54 per hour. Many of those workers belong to labor unions.

State Rep. Kathy Swan, R-Cape Girardeau, who sits on the Workforce Development Committee that also approved the measure, said she supports the bill.

"We had a superintendent of a school district testify before the committee," Swan said. "He told us he could've added three more classrooms to a school building in his district if it hadn't been for the cost of the prevailing wage. That's a powerful perspective to consider."

However, not all area representatives are giving the bill their support. State Rep. Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, said he will vote against it.

"I feel this is undermining the prevailing-wage law," Hodges said. "I think it's the first step toward ending prevailing wage in Missouri."

Hodges added that with Republicans enjoying veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, it will be difficult for Democrats to even amend the bill. He foresees it passing the Senate, but if Gov. Jay Nixon vetoes the bill, Hodges hopes that positions will change during a veto-override session.

"There's several Republicans in the House with union ties who I think may change their minds," he said. "That has a tendency to happen in a pressure-filled session."

Rehder said the bill can't be called a war on labor unions.

"The bill is narrowly designed to only affect prevailing wage when it comes to creating and maintaining school buildings," she said. "I'd call it good old-fashioned common sense."

klewis@semissourian.com

388-3635

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