By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The state’s remaining prevailing-wage laws would be eliminated and state transportation officials would face more scrutiny under a bill that a group of Republican legislators began circulating for sponsorship Thursday.
Separately, the proposal would let state officials award road contracts using various alternatives to the state’s current low-bid-wins system. The alternatives would include the design-build and construction manager/general contractor methods.
The legislation comes in response to an audit of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation that found several faults in the agency’s practices and past performance. Most notably, the review pointed out that some of the agency’s cost estimates had been low by millions of dollars and that Wisconsin’s roads are in worse shape than roads in six other Midwestern states.
“We’re inserting ourselves legislatively into a broken agency,” said Sen. Chris Kapenga, a sponsor of the proposed legislation. “We are not going to just sit back anymore and allow DOT to be mismanaged.”
Defenders of the DOT have noted that many of the projects whose costs were underestimated had also been delayed by years, meaning that inflation had had time to drive up the price of construction materials.
The DOT overhaul bill comes as Republicans are struggling to find a way to close a $1 billion shortfall in the state’s transportation fund. Various groups within the party have continued pushing for their own proposals while making little apparently progress toward finding common ground with their colleagues in other parts of government.
Gov. Scott Walker, for instance, has proposed borrowing $500 million and delaying projects. Senate Republicans, for their part, have proposed borrowing $850 million. And Assembly Republicans want to raise more revenue, but Walker has vowed to veto any increase in the gas tax or vehicle-registration fees.
The stalemate has brought work on the state’s 2017-19 budget to a halt. The bill Republicans put forward Thursday doesn’t offer a way through the impasse. Instead, it presents a laundry list of changes meant to save money in whatever budget plan eventually does get passed.
It, for instance, would abolish Wisconsin’s remaining prevailing-wage laws on state-commissioned projects. Republicans have long maintained that these rules artificially inflate wages and cause public construction projects to cost more than they should.
Legislation passed by Republicans two years ago got rid of those requirements on locally commissioned projects starting this year. But even if the remaining state laws were eliminated, road projects that receive federal money would still be subject to the prevailing wages set by the federal Davis-Bacon Act.
Other provisions in the legislation proposed Thursday would let WisDOT award and oversee a project using various alternatives to the state’s current low-bid-winds, design-bid-build system. Most of these alternatives are meant to place project designs more under the direct control of contractors who, presumably because of their practical experience performing construction in the field, might be able to spot flaws and savings opportunities that would otherwise elude office-bound architects and engineers.
Current law lets contractors bid for projects only after the designs are finished. Most of the alternatives being proposed would allow them to make use of their expertise much earlier.
Design-build, for its part, would let the state solicit proposals from contractors when project designs are only about 30 percent complete. Whichever contractor was selected would have direct influence over the remaining engineering and architectural work
Construction manager/general contractor, also known as CMGC, would allow a contractor to be enlisted even earlier and to stay on until the designs were basically complete. The contractor would then be asked to produce a project proposal and a cost estimate, which the state would be free to accept or reject.
The chief criticism of this method is that it severely restricts competition. Usually, only if the original construction manager’s project proposal is rejected is the contract put out to bid.
The other two alternative methods that would be allowed by the legislation proposed Thursday are “design-build-finance” – which is essentially the same as design-build except that it would make the project team financing responsibilities and “fixed-price variable-scope,” which would have contractors provide projects for a guaranteed maximum price.
The bill would call on WisDOT to steadily put these alternative methods to use on more and more projects. Specifically, the bill calls for them be used on least 5 percent of DOT projects by the end of June 2019, 10 percent by the end of June 2021 and 20 percent by the end of June 2023.
Kapenga said the alternative methods would give contractors more freedom to complete jobs as they see fit and reduce DOT micromanagement.
Elsewhere, the proposal introduced Thursday would:
- have the state Department of Administration solicit bids for an outside audit of the DOT. The review would have to be finished by Aug. 31 of next year.
- have an inspector general appointed within the DOT to investigate fraud, inefficiency and mismanagement at the agency. The inspector general would have to work to find savings that would pay for the costs of the investigation.
- prevent engineers and architects from performing more than 20 percent of the design work needed on projects awarded through the new alternative-delivery systems.
- require counties and municipalities that want to use wheel taxes to raise transportation money to first win voters’ approval through a referendum. Also, the DOT could not build a roundabout without first getting approval from local officials.
- have the DOT transfer state dollars set aside for state highway repairs to a new account for local transportation-assistance programs and shift federal local assistance money toward state highway repairs. Kapenga said the goal is to concentrate federal money on fewer projects to avoid federal restrictions.
A DOT spokeswoman didn’t immediately reply to an email seeking comment.
Myranda Tanck, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, said Fitzgerald looks forward to taking a closer look at the bill’s details. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a news release that he supports many of the reforms but said they won’t solve all of Wisconsin’s road troubles.
A spokesman for Walker didn’t immediately reply to an email.
Dan Shaw of The Daily Reporter contributed to this article.