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Prevailing-wage repeal to get hearing Monday

The state Senate’s labor committee plans to hear a bill Monday that would repeal Wisconsin’s remaining prevailing-wage laws.

The Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform will hold a public hearing on Senate Bill 216 at noon Monday in Room 411 of the state Capitol. If later approved by the full Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker, the legislation would end prevailing-wage requirements for state-commissioned building projects.

That change would come on top of the elimination for local projects that Republican lawmakers passed as part of the state’s current budget. Prevailing-wage opponents contend the minimum-pay laws artificially inflate the cost of public works and stymie competition.

Mike Mikalsen, clerk of the Senate’s labor committee, said the goal is to have Monday’s hearing wrapped up by 6 p.m., which could mean that speakers’ testimony will be subject to time limits. Still, Mikalsen  – who is also chief of staff to the committee chairman, state Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater – said he does not necessarily expect a large turnout.

“I think this issue has already been resolved for most people,” he said. “Prevailing wages have already been eliminated for all local projects, and this is the last piece with state projects.”

That doesn’t mean unions are ready to sit back and accept the complete elimination of prevailing wages. And, according to state officials, they still have quite a bit to fight for.

In a memo from March 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue estimated that, of the nearly $2.75 billion worth of projects that fell under prevailing-wage rules in 2013, more than fell under the state’s prevailing-wage requirements.

Unions and their allies regularly argue that prevailing wages are an essential safeguard, especially when governments are required to award contracts to the lowest bidder. If companies can start undercutting each other merely by paying lower wages – the argument goes – they will only be able to attract the most inexperienced and untrained workers and the quality of projects will decline as a result.

Some groups have also taken to contending that veterans would be hit particularly hard should prevailing wages go away. American Legion Post 139 in Wisconsin has repeatedly cited a Midwest Economic Policy Institute study suggesting the loss of prevailing wages would cause veterans in the industry to lose 2,000 jobs and $113 million worth of take-home pay.

Others have sought to cast doubt on those contentions. Still, prevailing-wage supporters seemed to catch a break two weeks ago when state lawmakers – at odds with the governor over his transportation proposal and other parts of his spending plans – removed a similar elimination proposal from Walker’s proposed 2017-19 budget.

Now, though, with a repeal proposal scheduled to get a hearing on Monday, the fight has simply moved into a new arena.

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