Friday, May 11, 2001

Prevailing wage law reviewed

Some consider payment rule for construction a political morass

By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — The General Assembly's investigative arm is forging ahead with a study of Kentucky's “prevailing wage” law, undeterred by the doubts of its own staff that solid research is possible.

        The law, enacted in 1940, requires workers on all but the smallest public construction projects to be paid the prevailing wage of a prescribed area.

        The Labor Cabinet determines the wage, which is not necessarily an average wage or a union scale wage. But unions say it puts them on an equal footing with non-union contractors in bidding for jobs.

        Construction-trades unions won a significant victory in 1996 when the General Assembly, with Gov. Paul Patton's support, repealed exemptions for school-district and university projects.

        A staff report Thursday to the Program Review and Investigations Committee said the prevailing-wage effect may be impossible to “tease out” from the myriad other factors of construction costs.

        Moreover, “this is a highly political topic,” and the few existing studies of prevailing-wage laws tend to be biased, Ginny Wilson, an economist who heads the committee's staff, told legislators.

        The committee voted to proceed anyway. Rep. Sheldon Baugh, R-Russellville, questioned the staff's reluctance and whether Ms. Wilson had a “preconceived notion” about a study's outcome. “Is "prevailing wage' a sacred cow that should not be addressed?” Mr. Baugh said.

        Sen. Charlie Borders, a self-described “pro-labor” Republican, said no one should shy from information.

        Mr. Borders said he voted for the 1996 law and later was surprised to learn that the school board in Greenup County, his home, had to pay wages based in part on what workers are paid in Ohio, not just in his immediate region.

        Ms. Wilson said the study will be heavily dependent on the willingness of contractors to provide information about their wages. The committee does not have authority to compel it, she said.


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