Missouri House proposes repeal of the state’s prevailing wage law

The Missouri House has proposed repealing the state’s prevailing wage law.  Backers say the bill will allow more public works projects to move forward.  Opponents say it will lower wages and drive more people onto public assistance programs.

Representative Jeffery Justus (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Missouri’s prevailing wage law sets a minimum salary that must be paid to individuals working on public projects, such as the construction or repair of bridges, school buildings, and fire stations.  If House Bills 1729, 1621, and 1436 pass, bidders on such projects would pay the state or federal minimum wage, whichever is higher.

The bills are being carried on the House Floor by Representative Jeffery Justus (R-Branson).  He is one of those who say eliminating the prevailing wage would allow public tax dollars to accomplish more in any given project because the law artificially inflates the wages paid to workers.

“Imagine our state as we go into the future being able to, at the same cost of building a road for 100 miles, be able to build 110 miles; imagine being able to repair 11 bridges for the same cost for what you can [repair] 10 bridges for now.  Imagine school buildings – being able to build where get an extra four or five rooms for what we’re paying for less now.  Imagine a sewer plant having the capacity of 5-million gallons being able to do 5-million 500-thousand gallons for the same amount of money,” said Justus.

Democrats argued that repealing prevailing wage would cause workers to receive less in wages and benefits.  St. Louis representative Karla May, a member of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), said that law exists for a reason.

“The reason why the government had to step in to create prevailing wage is because of the greed of companies and contractors not willing to pay workers and not willing to maintain good working conditions,” said May.  “The only reason laws exist is because we have bad actors.”

Representative Doug Beck (D-St. Louis), a pipefitter for the UA Local 562, told lawmakers that voting to repeal the prevailing wage law would be “foolish.”

Representative Karla May (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“You’re telling your constituents – especially your construction constituents – that you want them to make less money.  That is what will happen; that is a fact.  They will also have less healthcare.  Job fatalities go up.  Safety issues go up – they all go up.  That’s what happens.  Less pensions; we’ll be paying for this through the state some way or another  way,” said Beck.

Republican Cheri Toalson Reisch (Hallsville), who worked as the city clerk and later mayor of Hallsville, said prevailing wage is not a union vs. non-union issue.

“This is a taxpayer issue.  I don’t care if you’re a union representative or not.  That has nothing to do with this bill,” said Reisch.  “I’ve spent almost my entire life being a taxpayer watchdog.  I have personally done millions upon millions and millions of water, sewer, street, and building construction projects that had to go prevailing wage.  I can tell you it does add 30-percent to the cost to my taxpayers.”

The House voted 89-62 to send the bill to the Senate.  Last year a similar proposal was sent to the Senate but that chamber failed to pass it.

House close to proposing a repeal of Missouri prevailing wage law

The state House has given initial approval to a repeal of Missouri’s “prevailing wage” law, which sets what local governments and school boards must pay for construction or maintenance work.

The wage is set on a county-by-county basis based on wage surveys for each type of work, such as carpentry, bricklaying, or electrical work.  When a county does not have adequate wage data, the union rate for that trade is used.

Republicans supporting House Bill 104 say the prevailing wage law drives up the cost of projects, making local governments postpone work or forgo it altogether.  The sponsor of HB 104, Representative Warren Love (R-Osceola), said his bill would allow more projects to move forward.

“We talk about economic development in this state.  I can’t think of hardly anything that’s been brought forward that will create more work for Missouri workers,” said Love.

Love gave the example of an ambulance district in his district that was based in a house, which needed roof repair after a hailstorm.  Love said other, similar repairs in the area were costing about $22,000, but because the ambulance district must pay prevailing wage, it would cost more than $63,000.

“The insurance company, due to the similar, like projects in that area only paid $22,000 for that public work project, so the other $40,000 had to come up and be made out of the ambulance district, which was taxpayer money,” said Love.

Democrats including Doug Beck (D-St. Louis) say the legislation is simply another attack on workers.

“There’s been study after study that says that eliminating the prevailing wage does not reduce construction costs.  All it does is reduce the amount of revenue that comes into a state from construction workers,” said Beck.

Grandview Democrat Joe Runions said eliminating prevailing wage would lead to more jobs going to contractors from other states, who would take their pay back out of Missouri.

“Then local contractors will come back and continue to have to fix what’s screwed up,” said Runions.

Opposition to HB 104 was bipartisan, but it was given first-round approval on a 93-60 vote.

Another vote could send HB 104 to the state Senate.  It would be the continuation of the House Republican Supermajority’s labor reform efforts this year, which have also included passage of a bill to require annual permission from a worker before union dues could be taken from his or her pay, and a right-to-work bill that has been signed into law by Governor Eric Greitens (R).