Adding extra costs to school construction

Prevailing wage: The price of passing Glendening's union-backed bill will be fewer new schools.

February 15, 2000

AT A TIME WHEN Gov. Parris N. Glendening is loudly proclaiming his commitment to building more schools in Maryland, he is pushing a bill that would sharply inflate the price of school construction and thus limit the number of new schools that can be built.

It's an effort by the governor to assist labor unions -- in this case the building trades -- that are anxious to gain a bigger chunk of school construction work.

Right now, non-union contractors do more than 80 percent of the construction -- public and private -- in Maryland. They pay their workers less than the union rates.

FOR THE RECORD - A Tuesday editorial incorrectly stated the "prevailing wage" paid on state-financed construction projects is almost always the union rate. While there is wide variance in what constitutes the prevailing wage in each county and in Baltimore City, the union rate is the prevailing wage in only 24 percent of building projects statewide.
The Sun regrets the error.

A non-union electrician in Maryland is paid an average of $19.63 an hour, compared with a union electrician's $23.25; non-union plumbers earn $19.29 an hour versus $22.73 for a union plumber; non-union carpenters earn $16.11 hourly against $17.54 for their unionized counterpart; painters in the union receive $16.39 an hour against $15.39 for non-union work.

What the governor seeks is a law that requires payment of the "prevailing wage" in a region -- almost always the union rate -- on all school construction projects where the state contributes 50 percent of the money.

That would mean the prevailing wage would be paid for most of Maryland's school work -- more than $500 million in state and local funds a year. A state legislative study in 1989 showed higher wage rates would inflate school construction costs between 5 and 15 percent.

That means $25 million to $75 million a year in taxpayer funds earmarked for new schools would wind up being consumed by higher wages.

Somewhere between six and 18 new elementary schools wouldn't be built.

The governor's bill helps union contractors. But it harms children in schools that are antiquated or overcrowded. Some of the promised renovations and new buildings would have to be postponed for lack of funds.

Legislators in Annapolis should do what's best for the children, not what's best for the unions. This is a special-interest bill. It would inflate construction costs for taxpayers.

The governor's bill should be given a polite hearing this Friday and then a respectful burial later in the General Assembly session.

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