Problematic Prevailing Wage Repeal Deserves Open Debate

By Rep. Dave Considine (D-Baraboo)

After a number of difficult conversations on labor regulations in our state, including Right to Work, and in the midst of deliberation on the 2015-2017 state budget, the Legislature now faces a proposal to repeal our state’s prevailing wage law. This law is an important part of Wisconsin’s tradition of safe, productive work environments for those in our trade industries, especially construction. According to the bill’s author, Rep. Rob Hutton, it would “allow for broader participation in the governmental bidding process at wage levels that more accurately reflect market conditions.”


But this is only one way to describe the bill, and it does not tell the full story. I, along with many of my colleagues and constituents, have serious concerns about the consequences of repealing Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law. One major result the bill’s advocates often neglect to mention is that it has the potential to drive down wages for workers across our state. According to the Wisconsin Contractor Coalition, a group of over 400 union and non-union businesses, our road and bridge construction workers are some of the most productive in the entire country. The WCC also reports that studies touting millions of dollars in potential savings from repealing our prevailing wage are fundamentally inaccurate in their estimates. Put simply: our current system works. Why change it, especially when doing so would not deliver substantial savings or create the family-supporting jobs our citizens need?


Another worrying part of this proposal is the recent discussion of slipping the repeal of prevailing wage into the state budget. Not only is this the wrong place for this bill, but it is dangerous to our democratic process. This is a policy proposal, not a fiscal one – it has no place in the budget. But perhaps more concerning is the serious lack of debate that would result. On the Assembly and Senate floor, legislators vote for or against the budget in its entirety, not based on which sections we support or oppose. If this repeal is pushed into the budget, there will be virtually no opportunity to debate it on its own merits. Instead of receiving the public discussion it deserves, it will be hidden behind the multitude of other complex issues that have been debated and unpacked with input from the citizens they will actually affect.


Given our current financial situation, we all agree that we need to find ways to save money and spend more responsibly – but cheaper and lower quality labor is not the way to do it. Instead, we should be discussing other ways to rebuild our economy and strengthen our middle class. Accepting the federal Medicaid money still available to us or investing in our public education are just two of these possibilities. If we work collaboratively, we can find ways to improve Wisconsin’s economy – without endangering the safety and livelihood of our workers. Repealing the prevailing wage is not only an unnecessary proposal, it is a dangerous one, and it should not be considered in any form.