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Legislature may revive contract wage bill


The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va.  — West Virginia state lawmakers may try to resurrect a bill that would exempt details of wages paid on state construction projects from disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Under current law, what contractors pay to workers hired for state construction projects is considered public information. But some lawmakers think letting just anyone see how much a contractor pays employees should be proprietary information and could give an unfair advantage if competitors know what their colleagues are paying for labor.

During the 2016 legislative session, state lawmakers abolished a law requiring contractors pay prevailing wage rates for work done on government construction projects. During the 2017 session, members of the state Senate introduced Senate Bill 412, which would have exempted what contractors pay employees from state FOIA laws.

The bill did not pass, but the Legislature may consider similar legislation for the 2018 session.

Lawmakers heard arguments on both sides of the issue during a meeting of the Legislature’s joint committee on labor and workplace safety during legislative interim meetings on Tuesday, Aug. 22.

Under the provisions of Senate Bill 412, the amount of money contractors on state construction jobs set aside to pay for labor would have been public information, but how that money was paid out and to whom would not have been. Supporters of the legislation argued that if a contractor could find ways to trim labor costs and save taxpayers money, that was the contractor’s business.

Bryan Hoylman, president of the Associated Builders & Contractors, was in that camp. Hoylman told members of the committee that sharing personal information for private citizens working on public contracts was an unfair invasion of privacy. He said it was enough that contractors are required to set out the amount of money they set aside for labor in their bids.

But Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, disagrees. Smith said exempting payroll information from FOIA laws would hamstring journalists’ role in uncovering government corruption, and keep the public from finding out if contractors are playing by the rules.

Smith said a recent state highways kickback scheme shows why the public needs access to information about public contracts.

“We have a history of (corruption),” Smith said. “When this much money is involved crooks will find more ways to get it than we can find to stop it.”

Members of the joint legislative committee seemed split on whether exempting the information from public view was a good idea or not.

Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said if the information is exempted from public disclosure there will be no way to tell if contractors are paying their workers a fair wage or bringing in workers from out of state to skirt laws requiring the hiring of state residents for government contracts. Some of those who were against Senate Bill 412 during the 2017 legislative session feared the legislation would allow contractors to cook their labor numbers or allow them to pay illegal workers under the table to keep overall costs down and maximize profits.

“In my opinion, there’s no reason to hide this information from the public, because they’re the ones paying the bill,” Caputo said.

Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, agreed.

“We’re going the wrong direction,” Beach said. “The more transparency we have the better off we’ll all be.”

But Sen. Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, said contractors have to include their overall labor costs in their bids. He didn’t think it was necessary to list the wages paid to each and every employee.

Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, asked whether wages paid to employees should be made public on every state contract. “Once we start down this path, do we have any privacy at all?” he asked.

The committee does not have a specific bill to look at, but were discussing the issue in general, committee leaders said.

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