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January 20, 2018

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GOP effort to curb prevailing wage riles Democrats, labor reps

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Cathleen Allison / AP

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, works at a budget subcommittee hearing on Friday, May 3, 2013, at the Legislative Building in Carson City. Kieckhefer voted at least six times this year to advance measures benefiting clients of the law firm McDonald Carano, where he works as director of client relations.

Lawmakers have fired the first salvo in the legislative battle among political parties, organized labor and conservatives groups.

The Senate Government Affairs Committee vetted a bill that would prohibit the state from paying prevailing wages on public education construction projects, kickstarting a debate bound to reverberate for the remainder of the session and into the 2016 election.

Senate Bill 119, sponsored by Republican Sens. Ben Kieckhefer and Becky Harris, highlights the longstanding partisan divide in the workforce.

Prevailing wage is a sum paid to all workers on public projects — building new schools, roads and other government facilities.

The state’s labor commission determines prevailing wages by surveying contractors in every county.

The labor commission declined to comment for this story.

Republicans claim that the salaries of union employees inflate the prevailing wage and create a disparity in the marketplace and a costly expense for the state on public projects. Democrats say the policy provides state projects with highly skilled contractors and livable wages.

For decades, Republicans have pushed to upend the current prevailing wage laws, but they have never had the majority to do so in the Legislature. Late Gov. Kenny Guinn pushed reforms in 2001 without any effect. Kieckhefer proposed legislation in 2013 with the same result.

Now that Republicans control the Legislature and the governor’s office, it’s poised to pass the law.

If prevailing wage is stripped from public school construction projects, Republicans say the state will save money.

Democrats and organized labor assail the idea, saying it would ship jobs out of state.

“If we gut prevailing wage, folks aren’t going to be able to feed their families,” Democratic Sen. Kelvin Atkinson said. “If there are lower wages, you are taking essential things out of homes and money out of the economy.”

The move to cut prevailing wage dovetails with Gov. Brian Sandoval’s call to raise taxes to bolster education funding by more than $800 million. The Republican move to raise taxes comes with Sandoval’s promise to implement what he’s called accountability measures and reforms.

“If we approve this exemption we will go back to revert to the free market to price the construction of our schools,” Kieckhefer said. “If we do that we will be able to build more schools.”

Prevailing wage is just one bill aiming at organized labor. Also on the table are bills to change collective bargaining laws.

Unions promised to lobby in unprecedented numbers and canvass districts with lawmakers who support changes to collective bargaining and prevailing wage.

In contrast to the suits and ties of lawmakers and lobbyists, some union members filled the committee meeting Wednesday dressed in jeans, boots and plaid shirts.

Contractors were one of the hardest hit groups in the recession and among the slowest to recover, union members testified. They argued that the quality of work would diminish along with the wage of Nevada workers.

“Schools happen to be a big part of my business,” said Craig Holt, owner of Sierra Nevada Construction. “... This is jeopardizing my employees and their wages.”

A handful of contractors testified that good construction employees don’t cost $15 an hour, saying that contractors who win prevailing wage jobs have certifications and education to do the job properly.

On the prevailing wage schedule, laborers average $48 to $50 per hour in Clark County.

“Maintaining the prevailing wage means that you get the highest quality worker out there,” said Danny Thompson, executive vice treasurer of the Nevada AFL-CIO. “People leave if they don’t get those jobs. If you want qualified people you've got to pay prevailing wage.”

The prevailing wage provision is one part of a two-pronged bill. The other half of the bill would allow school boards to issue bonds without having voters approve the funding.

Lawmakers in both parties and superintendents agree that giving boards the authority would be good for the state’s education system.

But committee chairman Sen. Pete Goicoechea said he doesn't see the bill passing because of the bonding issue.

He said his rural constituents wouldn’t approve of it.

The committee will vote on the bill at its Friday meeting.

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