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Senate votes to alter, not pitch, prevailing wage law

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — After several days of negotiations, the West Virginia Senate Thursday approved a modified version of its prevailing wage bill.

Senate Bill 361 would no longer repeal prevailing wage, which is the wage paid to workers on public works projects such as roads and schools. An amendment to change the language of the bill was approved late Thursday by a voice vote in the Senate.

The modified bill approved Thursday by a 23-11 vote would remove calculation of prevailing wage from the state Department of Labor and place it with Workforce West Virginia, which would collaborate with West Virginia University and Marshall University to recalculate the wage. That calculation would come up for review every three years.

The bill also would set a threshold of $500,000 for projects, so smaller projects would not have to provide prevailing wage, making those projects more competitive.

Sen. Douglas Facemire, D-Braxton, was one of the votes against, saying the bill was reckless and warning the Senate “we don’t know what we’re about to do.”

Facemire warned the only outcome he could see was a reduction in wages for West Virginia workers.

“This isn’t a game,” he said. “We’re playing with people’s livelihoods.”

Minority Leader Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, who was a sponsor of the amendment which changed the bill from a repeal, but who voted against the full bill, said it is based on “guesstimates” on its effect on the economy.

“In my opinion, that is the wrong way for us, the most deliberative body, to pass legislation,” he said. “I would prefer we pass legislation based on what we know is going to happen.”

Lawmakers debated delaying a vote on the bill by one day after Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, complained the amendment effectively changed the entire bill but was submitted only five minutes before the start of the session.

The bill had previously been delayed for two days as groups negotiated the amendment, but Unger argued many legislators as well as interested parties and members of the public were left out of the negotiation process.

Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, who heads the Senate Government Organization Committee, said while officials had two meetings that were not open to the public, officials have openly discussed the issue and negotiations with the media.

Majority Leader Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said he believes the process has been transparent.

“This is not a secret. This bill, it has probably been the most visible, contentious, debated, discussed bill within the entire 30 days,” of the legislative session, he said, adding the bill had been discussed “beyond any reasonable expectation of inclusiveness.

“This delay will not add anything to the process. Everyone is here. We’re ready to vote on this.”

Senate Republicans defeated Unger’s motion to delay the bill by a day with a 16-18 vote along party lines. As a compromise, Carmichael called for the Senate to reconvene at 5 p.m. Thursday to discuss and vote on the bill, which he said would give legislators and members of the public time to review the amendment.

Unger said in his 17 years as a legislator, he has never seen the Senate reject a request to delay a bill by one day except in cases where it would cause the bill to die for lack of a vote.

Proponents of the bill say prevailing wage is artificially high and does not reflect the true market value of projects. By repealing or changing prevailing wage, state and municipal entities would save hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money, much of which could be invested into more projects which ultimately would create more jobs, proponents said.

Critics have said the repeal of prevailing wage would be a massive cut to workers’ pay and would lead to many West Virginia construction companies being underbid by out-of-state companies using cheap and unskilled labor. The use of unskilled labor also would lead to lower quality work and a decline in safety, they said.

In other business, the Senate Thursday concurred with the House to pass SB7 which requires CPR care to be taught in public schools as a requirement for graduation, and SB335, which gives first responders and others the ability to administer life saving medication without liability in the event of a drug overdose. Those bills will now go to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to be signed into law.

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