Information now allows public, unions, media to monitor out-of-state hiring, tax payments
By Jim Workman
West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A Senate bill that would “require that certain documents filed pursuant to WV Jobs Act which include records of wages be considered confidential” is causing concern from labor leaders and media representatives.
SB 474 advanced to third reading stage during the West Virginia Senate legislative session Wednesday at the State Capitol. It will be on third reading during Thursday’s floor session.
Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, said the bill would eliminate public and all access to payroll information on state construction jobs and the Roads to Prosperity road bond work.
During a Senate Workforce Committee meeting Feb. 4 at the State Capitol, Senate Bill 474 passed through the committee, abruptly, when Senator Randy Smith, R-Tucker, made a motion to go to vote following a spirited discussion, but prior to most members of the public present being able to address the committee.
Only the Don Smith from the WVPA was able to address the committee from the public’s standpoint.
“I was going to get up there and speak about this issue too,” said Steve White, director of Affiliated Construction Trades. “But (the committee) shut down the debate. They did not allow anyone else to speak.”
White and numerous construction workers, who had came to the Capitol for the meeting, were in attendance to address the bill, but did not get an opportunity to speak.
More than two weeks later, the bill made the Senate floor agenda Tuesday. Don Smith and White are among those monitoring the bill closely.
White said it’s about documents and information. He said a 2017 bridge repainting project in South Charleston awarded to Seminole Equipment, a Florida company, is an example of how things can go awry.
“There are two big issues,” White explained. “The West Virginia Jobs Act applies. That is the bill that Senate Bill 474 is amending. We need to see (through documents) if the contractor awarded the project is hiring local people. We knew there were qualified, unemployed local folks – qualified bridge painters available (for the South Charleston project). The law would require the company to go to West Virginia Workforce to see if there are any qualified local people.”
The company did so, White conceded, but added a requirement of a special certification.
“That’s fine, it’s a good certification,” White said. “Our guys didn’t have it, so (Seminole) got a waiver to bring in workers from wherever. That’s how it’s supposed to work, and that’s fine. But when we look at their payroll, they brought in people without the certification. It’s crazy. We are terribly upset about that. That’s a violation of the West Virginia Jobs Act.”
White said Senate Bill 474 would provide contractors who don’t follow the law a way to operate in a similar manner undetected.
Besides the worker issue, White said West Virginians paid more than $1 million on that bridge project ….”
“They didn’t use local, qualified people and of the workers they use, and there’s no evidence of state income tax withholding deductions (on the payroll records) either,” White said.
White said during discussion in an interim meeting a few months ago, proponents of the bill expressed concerns about personal privacy.
“But they couldn’t come up with an example,” said White. “It then became about corporate privacy. The next thing you’ll hear is, ‘We don’t want our competitors to see what we’re paying.’ What would be the problem with that? It’s publicly funded projects. It’s always been like that.”
Approval in the House of Delegates and the governor’s signature would ultimately be required for the bill to become law.
“If it does get to the governor, we would ask for him to review it and to veto it,” White said. “It’s counter to his message and commitment. I feel comfortable in believing the governor’s not behind this effort. It’s terrible policy.”
White gave the governor credit for anticipated road projects that could reach as much as $3 billion.
But White also warned of the potential deceit by dishonest contractors and others.
“Where there’s money, there’s potential for corruption,” White said. “Cheaters look for opportunities. The argument for privacy is bull. It’s bogus.”
Senate Bill 474 would restrict the public’s and the press’ freedom to monitor spending, hiring and fraud, Don Smith added.
“Getting the road bond passed, when the payroll information was available, and then removing it so the media and public can’t see it is comparable to advertisers running a ‘Bait and Switch’ campaign with ads that feature a big TV and then offering only a small TV,” Don Smith said. “The project is $3 billion, with bonds at $1.6 billion. There’s an estimated $500 million just in interest. You (the Legislature) asked the people of West Virginia to trust you with borrowing $3 billion and now you want to change the law so they can’t see how you’re spending the money.”
Smith said the bill would hide information on the “prosperity” part of the bond, adding, “President Ronald Reagan’s statement, “trust, but verify” holds true still today.
“With the Roads to Prosperity bond issue, they promised the people of West Virginia prosperity along with the roads,” he said. “We will be able to see the roads, but not the prosperity (if the bill passes).”
Last fall, the Road to Prosperity Bond Referendum was passed by the voters of West Virginia by a wide margin, 73-27 percent.
Governor Jim Justice said in a press conference following the vote, “This is an opportunity to taste winning. This is an opportunity for jobs and revenue. It’s absolutely the most historic time in our state, period, in my opinion.
“We passed a historic road bond, for sure,” Justice added.
Smith said Senate Bill 474 would not allow for monitoring the success West Virginia might realize.