The Missouri House has officially passed a measure to tie wages for public works projects more closely with the location where the work is being done.
The proposal, which is a combination of three bills from Republican representatives, would impact employees on projects for cities, school districts, and local governments. It would do away with the current “prevailing wage” policy that binds pay to wages reported by contractors.
The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.
A sticking point with many Republicans which represent rural districts is that contractors don’t report their wages paid, and worker pay is then skewed toward urban areas where the cost of living and wages are much higher.
GOP Representative Holly Rehder of Sikeston says public works projects in her area are threatened because worker pay is tied to St. Louis wages. “In southeast Missouri, if we’re paying $47.00 an hour for a job classification that in our area usually pays $22.00, well then that school project isn’t getting done,” said Rehder.
Opponents of the prevailing wage law, which include many cities and counties, claim It leads to money being siphoned from local jurisdictions to pay for high labor costs. They say it artificially raises wages and makes public works construction costs prohibitive in rural areas, leading to the abandonment or neglect of important projects.
Republican House member Jeffery Justus of Branson, the chief sponsor of the combined legislation, says local elected officials have expressed their frustration with the current law.
“The ones that are there every day who are elected to spend their taxpayers’, their constituents’ money, they’re the ones that are coming to us and saying ‘Prevailing wage costs more’,” said Justus. “And they gave example after example in the committee hearings.”
Justus admitted on the House floor that most members had probably made up their minds about the legislation which has been debated for years in the Missouri General Assembly.
The measure would repeal the prevailing wage law and require contractors to pay employees the state or federal minimum wage, whichever is higher. The minimum wage for public works projects is governed by the federal Davis-Bacon Act, which requires worker pay to be equal to similar contract work in a given region.
In Cole County, which is home to the state Capitol in Jefferson City, pay ranges from $14.35 per hour for a marble finisher, to $47.07 for an elevator constructor. Many of the positions have basic hourly rates between $25.00 and $35.00. Prevailing wage is determined by the Department of Labor and is based on the number of hours worked.
Those who are against repealing the prevailing wage law contend that if worker pay was reported then the wage itself would better reflect local economies and would be lower in rural areas. Organized contractor associations and labor unions oppose the legislation to repeal the law. Contractors like prevailing wage because it keeps skilled workers from taking jobs in other states.
Democratic Representative Doug Beck of St. Louis thinks local communities would be better served if contractors were required to report their worker pay.
On the House floor, he said out of state companies will take over local public works projects with their own low pay workers.
“We will have out of state companies that will come in here and start doing the work in Missouri,” said Beck. They will bring their workers with them. These are facts. These are not scare tactics. It’s happened in Indiana. It’s happened in Arkansas. It’s happened wherever they’ve repealed prevailing wage.”
Passing a prevailing wage rollback is a priority for the Republican supermajority legislature. After years of frustration, the GOP passed a business-friendly Right-to-work proposal last year with a like-minded head of state, Governor Eric Greitens, signing the measure into law.
A prevailing wage bill passed the House in 2017 but stalled in the Senate, which became dysfunctional and consumed with GOP-infighting during the session.
The measure passed Tuesday in the House was by an 89-62 margin which was largely along party lines, but with some Republicans siding with Democrats against the legislation. The GOP holds a 115-47 super-majority edge in the House.
Along with Representative Justus, two other Republican House members offered bills that were incorporated into the combined legislation – Rehder and Warren Love of Osceola.