One of the things Republicans in West Virginia vowed to do if they ever gained control of the Legislature was to run fiscal notes on proposed legislation to see if it would benefit or harm the state economically.
Then they did gain control. One of the first aims under GOP control was to eliminate the state’s prevailing wage. It didn’t quite take in 2015, but the GOP got it done in 2016. They rejected requests for a fiscal note both times.
Prevailing wage laws generally ensure that skilled labor is well-compensated for major public projects, like building a new school. If there’s one thing the GOP across the country generally doesn’t like, it’s union labor. As has been recalled every time the prevailing wage issue has come up, it’s Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, saying the state could build five schools for the price of three if the prevailing wage was scrapped.
Maybe they should have taken on that fiscal note.
A new report found that repealing the prevailing wage hasn’t saved West Virginia much money at all, and has hurt the local economy because in-state businesses are often undercut by low bids from out-of-state firms. Those out-of-state businesses have no real incentive to bring in skilled workers, so the work they do ends up being of a lower quality.
It’s fair to point out that the study was commissioned by the labor organizations Affiliated Construction Trades and the West Virginia State Building Trades Council.
But numbers don’t lie, and the fact that apprenticeship training in West Virginia has dropped by 20 percent and workplace injury rates for construction have increased by 17 percent since the prevailing wage was done away with is alarming.
Again, in the interest of fairness, ACT director Steve White said he would like to see numbers from a longer time period before drawing definitive conclusions. But he also felt it showed enough that the Legislature should consider reinstating the prevailing wage.
Other labor organizations are skeptical that the Legislature will do anything with these findings, and that they’re better used as campaign points in elections next year.
Regardless, the Legislature should have done its due diligence when it had the chance. Knowing in advance that repealing the prevailing wage would hurt West Virginia businesses, result in fewer skilled workers (something this state desperately needs) and not save any significant amount of money would sway anyone, Republican or Democrat, away from such a proposal.
Of course, now it’s too late. And most politicians don’t like undoing something that hasn’t worked, because it means admitting mistakes were made. It’s more likely salvos will be launched against the report and its veracity. However, it’s doubtful anyone in West Virginia would hold bringing more work back to local contractors with higher pay against the Legislature. That’s something they might want to think about heading into the 2020 session.