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Home / Commentary / EDITORIAL: What the Legislature did (and didn’t do) this session

EDITORIAL: What the Legislature did (and didn’t do) this session

As could perhaps be expected in an industry that both comes under strict regulation and works regularly on government projects, construction companies rarely see a legislative session come and go in Madison without there being a flurry of new laws that affect their business.

The past two years have been no exception. Here’s a partial list of legislation — arranged by subject matter — that lawmakers got done this year, as well as a few priorities that remain on their to-do lists:

School ‘dones’

  • Referendums – The state budget contains a provision allowing school referendums to be held only on primary or general-election days. Proponents of this change argue it will ensure that referendums, which are often used to authorize multi-million-dollar building projects, are held at times when turnout can be expected to be high.
  • Energy-efficiency projects – A separate budget provision eliminated school districts’ authority to forgo a referendum when they wanted to exceed their state-imposed revenue caps to pay for energy-efficiency projects. Now schools have to get voters’ approval for such projects.
  • School safety – A week after a shooting rampage left 17 dead at a high school in Parkland, Fla., lawmakers put forward legislation meant to make Wisconsin schools safer. The resulting law sets aside $100 million for safety improvements.

School ‘to do’

  • Bidding requirements – With prevailing wages repealed and right-to-work adopted in Wisconsin, the hottest question in the industry in coming years is likely to be whether schools should be subject to bidding requirements. Various big contractors and industry groups successfully fought school-bidding legislation this year. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be back.

Bidding ‘dones’

  • State bidding thresholds – A new law raises the dollar value threshold that determines when a state project must be let out using the single-prime delivery method. Formerly $185,000, the threshold is now set at $300,000.
  • Project-labor agreements – Another new law prohibits local governments from using mandatory project-labor agreements in a way that critics contended directed public work to union companies. These sorts of agreements often require companies — both union and non-union — to abide by union terms of employment.

Bidding ‘to do’

  • Local bidding requirements – The same bill that would have subjected schools to bidding requirements would have also doubled the bidding threshold for local projects, taking it from $25,000 to $50,000. It’s been a while since the state has raised this threshold and some sort of change is probably overdue.

Transportation ‘done’

  • Budget – After much debate, lawmakers passed a transportation budget that held the line on the state’s gas tax and registration fees and authorized $400 million worth of new borrowing over two years, all the while delaying only a few projects. This was accomplished in part by imposing a $75-a-year fee on hybrid vehicles and $100-a-year fee on electrical vehicles.

Transportation ‘to-dos’

  • Federal-aid “swap” – This proposal, which has been batted around in more than one legislative session, would have the Wisconsin Department of Transportation concentrate federal dollars as much as possible into state, rather than local, road projects. The goal is to prevent local governments from being subject to Davis-Bacon wage requirements, which some argue inflate project costs.
  • Tolling – Lawmakers have long said tolling could provide an alternative to the state’s reliance on gas taxes to generate money for roads. A provision in the state budget would have set aside $2.5 million to study tolling, but that was vetoed.
  • Interstate 94 East-West – After the reconstruction of both the Marquette and Zoo interchanges, drivers have been left with a real bottleneck along the stretch of Interstate 94 running between 16th and 70th streets. WisDOT asked the federal government in September to rescind its record of decision approving a widening of that stretch after money for that work was not added to the state budget. But business groups are likely to keep pushing for the project, arguing it’s vital to state commerce.

Taxes ‘dones’

  • Personal-property taxes – Starting this year, a budget provision exempts contractors from having to pay so-called personal-property taxes on virtually any piece of construction equipment. The change is expected to save contractors and other sorts of businesses about $75 million a year in total.
  • Sales and use taxes – A separate budget provision makes sales and use taxes no longer apply to materials bought for projects commissioned by technical colleges and University of Wisconsin campuses and extension offices. Still another provision extends to all types of construction contracts a tax exemption that had previously applied only to lump-sum contracts.

Training ‘dones’

  • One-to-one apprentice ratios – Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill last month preventing more than one journeyman from ever being needed to oversee the work of any single apprentice entering the trades. Proponents argue this legislation will help combat the construction industry’s persistent labor shortage.
  • High-school apprentices – With a separate bill signing, Walker enacted a law that will allow high-school seniors to take part in apprentice programs. The goal again is to bring more workers into the trades.

Local control ‘dones’

  • Statewide employment standards – A law passed this session puts in place statewide rules for occupational licensing, overtime and other employment matters. It scraps local governments’ ability to set minimum-wage requirements for public-works projects; prohibits local governments from exceeding the state’s occupational-licensing requirements; and sets a statewide standard for regulations concerning employee scheduling, hours and overtime; among other things.
  • Development regulation – A separate law bars local governments from placing certain restrictions on development projects. Among other things, the bill bans local ordinances that prohibit contractors from working on weekends or from putting up banners on construction fencing.

Economic development ‘done’

  • Foxconn – The $10 billion manufacturing plant the Taiwanese company is building in Mount Pleasant promises a lot of work for Wisconsin contractors and constructions workers (and likely some from Illinois.)

Economic development ‘to do’

  • Something for the rest of the state – Because, you know, contractors in Rhinelander have to eat too

– Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to state that the budget provision concerning a tolling study was vetoed. We regret the error.

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