Glendening seeks prevailing wages on school projects

Proposal removes exemption

counties, industry oppose plan

January 11, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson and Thomas W. Waldron | M. Dion Thompson and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Setting up a battle with the construction industry and county governments, Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposed yesterday to extend state law to require that union-scale wages be paid on school-building projects.

Following through on a 1998 campaign pledge to trade unions that endorsed his re-election, Glendening said he would seek to remove a "quirk" that exempts many school-construction projects from the state's prevailing wage law.

"We believe that the men and women building our schools out there ought to be paid a wage where they can support a family," the governor said. "Across the board, it's the right thing to do."

Glendening discussed the construction issue as he summarized his agenda for the General Assembly's annual 90-day session, which begins tomorrow.

The Maryland treasury is flush with a surplus of more than $1 billion, and the governor has proposed new spending on schools, higher education facilities and roadways.

Glendening confirmed that he will include $6 million in his budget to pay for textbooks in private and parochial schools -- which would be the first time that state funds have been used for such purposes. Glendening said the expenditure was reasonable given the increasing amount of money the state has spent on public schools in recent years.

"The $6 million for textbooks only pales in significance," Glendening said. "It's a reasonable effort to try to work with various parts of the community."

His proposal will face heavy opposition from teacher unions, public-school advocates and civil libertarians.

The governor also said he is against granting further income tax relief this year, though he left the door open for such a cut, which has the backing of key legislators.

Glendening might face opposition on his proposal to extend Maryland's prevailing wage law to cover school construction. The law requires contractors to pay union-scale wages on state-funded projects, whether or not the company has unionized workers.

Construction industry analysts and the Maryland Association of Counties said the proposal would drive up construction costs and jeopardize the building of much-needed schools.

They point to an earlier legislative analysis that predicted significant cost increases.

"That's what precipitated our opposition to last year's bill," said David Bliden, executive director of the association. "When you look at the significant investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in school construction, increasing those costs by even several percentage points could result in some needed schools not being built."

The governor called reports that builders would suffer "nonsense."

He also said the bill would have a direct benefit by employing Marylanders. He said contractors are bringing in workers from places such as West Virginia and North Carolina and paying them a low wage.

Dennis C. McCoy, chief lobbyist for Associated Builders and Contractors, disputed that.

"That's not true," McCoy said. "If the governor has some evidence that someone is bringing in people and paying a lower wage, I'd like to see it."

McCoy said the bill could drive up construction costs by as much as 30 percent. He said builders would be "vehemently opposed" to the proposal.

Glendening's proposal has the backing of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

"You can't be half-pregnant," said Taylor, a Cumberland Democrat. "If the prevailing wage is going to apply, it should apply consistently across the board."

"I certainly don't like to see out-of-state workers coming into our state taking all these construction jobs," he added.

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