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House stopped SB 412, attempt to limit public disclosure


The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The House of Delegates on April 6 shot down a last-minute attempt to salvage a bill that would have limited the public disclosure of wages paid on government construction projects.

Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, standing, was one of many delegates, including, clockwise, Tim Miley, D-Harrison; Scott Brewer , D-Mason; and Mike Ferro, D-Marshall, who supported or spoke about the need for government transparency during the debate on SB 412.

Delegates, including many Republicans in the GOP-controlled House, voted 67-31 against an amendment that would have restored an exemption under the state Freedom of Information Act to wages contractors paid to workers on government construction projects. The action came on the second reading of Senate Bill 412.

The legislation originally exempted wage information on government construction projects from public disclosure under FOIA. The bill passed the Senate on party lines, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats voting against the legislation.

Bill sponsor Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and other senators supporting the measure said disclosing the wages that contractors paid their workers on public projects could give an unfair advantage to competitors. They also said how much private workers were paid by a private company should not be disclosed to the public.

But Democrats in the Senate argued that the public was footing the bill for the projects, and that taxpayers deserved to know where their money was going. Without being able to see who was paid, and how much, Democrats argued, how would taxpayers know if the workers hired for the projects were mostly West Virginians as required by state law?

Opponents also argued that exempting wage information from FOIA would allow contractors to hire illegal foreign workers without anyone finding out.

When Senate Bill 412 reached the House of Delegates, however, the House Government Organization Committee voted 15-10 on an amendment to remove the FOIA exemption, saying taxpayers should know where their money was going. The bill then went to the House floor with the FOIA exemption removed.

When the bill came up for second reading, however, Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, offered an amendment restoring the FOIA exemption. The motion led to a lengthy and heated debate.

Arguments in the House were similar to those in the Senate, but Del. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, and several other House Democrats offered another theory about what was behind the legislation.

Caputo wondered aloud who had been pushing the bill and what they were trying to hide from taxpayers. He and other delegates suggested disclosing wage information would show that repealing prevailing wage laws, which some had predicted would save the state millions of dollars on public projects, didn’t really save money at all but did drive down wages for construction workers.

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