Prevailing wage debate divides Republicans, Democrats and laborers

Published: May. 25, 2017 at 5:30 PM CDT
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A bill aimed at eliminating the state's prevailing wage has pitted Republicans against Democrats and the state's construction and union workers.

In April, Republican lawmakers introduced their bill aimed at eliminating state prevailing wage for state projects. Prevailing wage is used to determine the average hourly rate a worker should be paid.

In 2015, the state legislature ended prevailing wage for local projects. The bill took effect this year.

It's got contractors like Doug Johnson feeling uneasy.

"If we didn't have this work right now, I'd have six guys that wouldn't be working," Johnson said.

He fears if the bill were to pass, even more could be out of work.

"Prevailing wage is to protect the local workers and if we have the out of state guys coming in, we don't have money coming in to our pockets," Johnson said.

Supporters, including Gov. Scott Walker said the bill would save money.

"It's one of those, we made changes for local government. This would tie it to the state government. It's just one more way to save the taxpayers money, and that money can be put back into more highway and construction projects," Walker said.

He adds it would also increase competition by giving non-union firms a chance at landing public projects.

"We're at an all time high in terms of employment. As employment goes up, wages over time are going to go up as well because it's a more competitive market. With or without the prevailing wage, people are still going to be paid well for the jobs that are out there," Walker said.

But Lee Polencheck with the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters said, the passing of the bill could actually end up costing the state more money if an out of state firm does a poor job and another firm must be hired to fix it.

"If you have out of state contractors coming up and if there's trouble on that, they say that work will take two or three years and they have to come back up to redo it, are they going to come back up to redo it?" Johnson asked.

It's why Johnson is urging lawmakers to consider keeping the state's prevailing wage.

"Do not let them take away the state wage or we're all going to be hurting."

If the bill were to pass, Wisconsin would join 20 other states without prevailing wage laws.

While prevailing wage would be eliminated at the state and local level, it would still remain at the federal level. The federal government still requires prevailing wage on projects paid for with federal funds.