Central Washington lawmakers say state and local governments could finish projects faster and save millions of dollars if the Legislature would approve exemptions for prevailing wage requirements.
Two companion bills in the House and Senate sponsored by 13th District lawmakers would temporarily suspend prevailing wage requirements for public projects related to damage from the Taylor Bridge Fire from last fall. House Bill 1255, sponsored by Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, would exempt new public school construction projects.
Senate Bill 5619, sponsored by Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, and House Bill 1249, sponsored by Manweller and Rep. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, aim to lower costs related to the cleanup from last summer’s massive wildfires by creating more competitive bidding.
With the expectation that House Democrats would oppose legislation they see as potentially undermining to the state Public Works Act, Warnick and Manweller said they only hope the legislation creates a dialogue about a very technical but also costly issue.
“I’m not trying to restrict people from paying a decent wage,” Warnick said. “I want to see if there’s a way we can have a more competitive bidding process.”
The prevailing wage is the usual hourly wage, benefits and overtime paid in the largest city in each county to the majority of workers according to their particular occupation. The state Public Works Act requires government contractors to pay prevailing wages on public work and building maintenance contracts.
Under the legislation, the prevailing wage exemption for school construction costs would only apply to those receiving state dollars through the School Construction Assistance Program.
Sixteen school districts received about $213 million for construction and modernization projects last year from the state program. The percentage of costs they cover varies by the type of project and a local district’s ability to raise funds based on assessed value of property per student.
State spending covered the vast majority of school construction costs in Yakima County last year, excluding athletic facilities and indirect costs, such as street repairs. School districts in Yakima, Mabton, Grandview, Sunnyside, Toppenish, Granger, Zillah, Wapato and Mount Adams all had 80 percent or more of their construction costs covered in state-assisted projects, according to documents from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Dave Andrews, business manager for the Toppenish School District, said even with state assistance, his district and the state are paying about twice as much as they would without the prevailing wage requirements. He said contractors regularly do the same quality of work for less on private construction projects.
“The state doesn’t ask contractors what the normal rate of pay is” to determine prevailing wage, Andrews said. “They ask the unions what’s the highest rate they get paid for jobs.”
But a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor & Industries, which determines the prevailing wage in each county, called that inaccurate. Labor & Industries spokeswoman Elaine Fischer said the state sends wage surveys to employers with and without union employees to determine the going rate.
“We send it to all employers that are reporting workers in those trades and occupations,” she said.
Fischer said the department is tracking the prevailing wage exemptions bills but won’t offer an official position unless the bills move out of committee.
A spokeswoman for the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction said that department also will not take a position unless the legislation gains traction.
Given Democratic opposition in the House, supporters conceded they don’t expect the bill to pass.
“I’m going to introduce my schools bill over and over again, and we’re going to have the discussion,” Manweller said. “If we can take 30 to 40 percent off the price of these projects, it’s a win for teachers, taxpayers and students.”
Fischer said the purpose of prevailing wages are to ensure workers on state projects are paid a fair rate and to prohibit contractors from bringing in nonlocal labor at cheaper wages.
“It’s still intended to make sure workers in a given area will make the going rate for that work,” Fischer said. “It’s a very open public process.”
The exemptions for wildfire-related projects only apply to those that resulted in a Department of Natural Resources mobilization response, exceeded 20,000 acres in size, and originated in a county east of the summit of the Cascade mountains. The exemption would also expire on July 1, 2015.
In 2012, six wildfires across the state each exceeded more than 20,000 acres in size, including the Taylor Bridge and Wenatchee Complex fires.
Warnick said much of the cleanup related to the fires involves fencing repairs and restoration of camping areas that could be done by smaller contractors. Those contractors usually won’t bid on projects that require prevailing wage standards, Warnick said, because they believe it will cost them.
“They don’t have as much flexibility with public projects,” Warnick said.
She said she does not anticipate prevailing wage to inhibit the ongoing fire cleanup efforts in rural areas around the state, and added she is not sure she would re-submit the bill next session.
“This one came to mind because of the damage to public lands,” Warnick said. “I’d like to keep the conversation going.”