By Jim Workman
West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — During a West Virginia Senate Workforce Committee meeting Wednesday morning at the State Capitol, Senate Bill 474 passed through the committee, abruptly, when a senator made a motion to go to vote, prior to most members of the public present being able to address the committee.
SB 474 would “Require that certain documents filed pursuant to WV Jobs Act which include records of wages be considered confidential.”
Senator Randy Smith, R-Tucker, hastily made the motion after a brief, spirited exchange.
Senator Chandler Swope, R- Mercer, chair, and Senator Ryan Weld, R- Brooke, vice-chair, gathered the committee in a brief recess, “to discuss parliamentary rule,” Swope said, and decided it proper to immediately tally votes.
See the committee meeting here: http://sg001-harmony.sliq.net/00289/Harmony/en/PowerBrowser/PowerBrowserV2/20180207/-1/19787
Only Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, was able to address the committee from the public’s standpoint.
He voiced WVPA member concerns about the bill, primarily as it pertains to access to information, to verify where and how state money is being used.
Don Smith said watching for fraud and abuse are key reasons for keeping the information accessible to the public and media.”The employees on the jobs and the public will monitor this as much as the media,” he said. “The public is often the first to notice an issue.”
“Low bidders can abuse the system with big change orders,” Smith said. “There are examples of contractors using bribes and hiring family and friends of politicians to get favorable treatment.”
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“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 addressed several construction workers who also attended the meeting after the meeting adjourned.
“They (the Workforce committee) don’t care about you,” White told the group. “They hate your guts, frankly. They act like they care about privacy, but they don’t care about your privacy.
“This was just a show.”
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Prior to the vote, Sen. Smith angrily answered Don Smith’s opinion by voicing his concerns about privacy and identity theft.
“For the average Joe to have access to personal information, I have a problem with that,” Smith said, adding that as a public official he understands most of his constituents know where he lives and perhaps “what he has for supper every evening.” Smith said having personal information made public should not be the case for private citizens trying to get a construction job.
“I guess I’m old-fashioned,” Sen. Smith added.
Don Smith reminded the committee of the amount of money being spent.
“You’ve asked the people to trust you with $1.5 billion,” Don Smith said. “When (the Road Bond passed), this information was available. We could see it and monitor that. The public voted for this knowing payrolls were available. But now, after it passes, you want to come back and say, ‘We want to hide this information.’”
Don Smith compared the situation to a bait-and-switch advertising ploy.
“Weren’t you saying, ‘Approve these bonds, you can monitor this right down to the dollars are spent and how many West Virginians are hired, and who benefitted from you paying back $3 billion plus interest.’ But now you’re saying, ‘We’re not going to let you do that.’”
The WVPA executive director told the committee, “the media monitors government and reflects public opinion. Passage of the bill would restrict both of those abilities.
“With the Roads to Prosperity bond issue, you promised the people of West Virginia prosperity along with the roads,” he added. “We will be able to see the roads. This bill would hide the information on the prosperity.”
“I trust the media less than I do the government,” Sen. Smith answered. “I have a problem with people getting a hold of other people’s private, personal information. Why do we have an auditor’s department or a labor department, if we’re not going to allow them to do their job? Why should we depend on the press?”
“Because we’re an independent party,” Don Smith answered. “The brighter the light, the more people watching, the better the effort.”
“Just because you accept a job, you shouldn’t have to give away your privacy,” Sen. Smith retorted. “This is the United States of America. We should have our privacy protected. That’s what this country was built on.
“Just because you want a job, you shouldn’t have to give up your privacy, just because you want to go to work, where people find out where you live and how much you make,” the senator added.
With that, Sen. Smith stated, “Mr. Chairman, I move the bill.”
The bill was unanimously passed.
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Senate Bill 474 is still going through its process, and will not yet go to the floor, giving those interested in speaking another opportunity to voice their opinions in another committee, Sen. Weld added.
“Certain discussions are non-debatable,” Sen. Weld said after the meeting. “It goes on to the committee on governmental organization now.”
White expressed further frustration of not being given the opportunity to speak before the committee Wednesday.
“But it doesn’t really matter I guess,” he said. “They have the votes. They’re going to take us out anyway.
“Prevailing wage was repealed,” White explained. “They said they were going to save all kinds of money, that we could see the bids, but what else is going on?
“What’s going on is wages are getting driven down. Benefits – gone. Apprenticeship and training – cut. That’s our livelihood. And they don’t want us to know. They don’t want the public to know.
“They’re wanting to make (disclosure of) payroll documents illegal.”
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White said ACT found a Florida painting company doing bridge work with non-local workers in Kanawha County. He said he has more than 10-years worth of similar instances to point to.
“We caught it because we had payroll (documents),” he explained. They (the offending company) didn’t withhold (West Virginia) state income taxes.”
Proponents of SB 474 “are on to that,” White said. “They want to make it so we never have access to the payroll.
“That’s the kind of bull that we have to deal with here (at the State Capitol),” he added. “They want to bring in illegal workers, and they want to pay them less than minimum wages. We know what they’re trying to do.
“We can’t win a vote in this committee, but it’s a long way before this bill gets through,” White said.