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Prevailing wage bill advances despite stall tactic

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A move by Senate Democrats to stall the prevailing wage repeal bill narrowly failed along party lines Thursday.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, moved to reject a report on Senate Bill 361 submitted by the Senate Government Organization Committee. Kessler argued the bill as submitted would simply abolish prevailing wage in West Virginia. Lawmakers and labor officials have repeatedly said they would prefer a compromise on the bill, but none could be found in the version submitted Thursday by the committee, he said.

Kessler said he had received hundreds of letters from workers and businesses saying the bill would be harmful.

“I’ve yet to hear anyone giving us a compelling reason to do this,” he said. “I don’t know why we need to run this train. It’s radical and it’s wrong.”

Other Democrats rose in support of Kessler, saying the bill amounted to a wage reduction for tens of thousands of West Virginians.

Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, called the process “sloppy” and said there was no reason for the bill to be rushed through.

The debate over prevailing wage “is not something that happened overnight,” Snyder said. “This has been coming. There was plenty of time for compromise. What we have done is put fear in the hearts of tens of thousands of West Virginians. They do not know, if this bill passes, what their wages will be.”

Snyder said he recently spoke with a construction worker who said if the repeal passed he likely would lose his home and would tell his children he couldn’t afford to send them to college.

“I just hung my head,” Snyder said. “It was not a proud moment.”

But Republicans fired back.

Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, who chairs the Government Organization Committee, said allowing the bill to come to the floor for discussion and revision would keep compromise and negotiation in the open rather than being done behind closed doors, as had been the Democrats’ tradition.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said all sides had ample time to consider the bill, which comes down to one important question: “Should workers on public projects be paid more, the same, or less than workers on private projects?” Carmichael said. If prevailing wage is allowed to continue, “the taxpayer would be subsidizing the wage rate on public projects. Is that fair?”

The motion to reject the committee report failed 16-18, the split between Democrats and Republicans. The bill moves to first reading today with Democrats promising more discussion and urging workers and businesses to contact their legislators.

The Senate Thursday also rejected a House-amended version of SB 13, also known as the “Open and Obvious” bill. The bill seeks to give property owners some protection from lawsuits if a hazard is an “open and obvious” danger. In theory, the bill would prevent someone from suing if they willingly put themselves in danger.

House amendments, however, extended the protection to include hazards that violate state or federal code. Critics have said this would give immunity to landlords who make no attempt to follow safety code, such as by not having accessible fire exits or a sprinkler system in place.

No floor discussion was held and the Senate agreed by voice vote to send the bill back to the House.

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