Wage bill likely to pass

Legislation expected to clear the Senate as early as tomorrow

`On the fast track'

Measure would drive up construction costs, opponents say

March 08, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Legislation pushed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening to expand the state's pro-labor prevailing wage law survived key test votes in the Maryland Senate yesterday and appears headed for approval by the General Assembly.

The bill is expected to clear the Senate as early as tomorrow. Opponents and supporters predict the House will embrace it as well, despite strong opposition from most Republicans and conservative Democrats.

"It's on the fast track," said Del. Michael R. Gordon, a Montgomery County Democrat, vice chairman of the House committee that will consider the measure.

The governor's bill would require local school systems to pay "prevailing wages" -- which are sometimes driven by union wage scales -- on construction projects in which the state pays at least 50 percent of the cost.

Current law requires such payments on school projects in which the state pays at least 75 percent of the costs.

Long sought by Maryland trade unions, the measure found new momentum this year thanks to a push from Glendening, who promised unions during his 1998 re-election bid that he would support the proposal.

The bill is expected to drive up school construction costs for state and local governments, which has prompted many local officials to staunchly oppose it in the past.

This year, Glendening has warned local officials not to lobby against the bill or they'll risk losing some state aid for building or remodeling schools.

"He's telling local officials this is something that is important to him," said Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill. "He's saying, `I've helped you significantly on school construction, and this bill won't cost you much. Please support me on this.' "

Some local officials with statewide aspirations -- such as Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry -- also are supporting the bill, in part because of a reluctance to offend a key Democratic constituency, lawmakers said.

Yesterday, the Senate rejected three amendments offered by opponents to weaken or alter the legislation, a sign it will win final Senate approval this week.

Republicans almost unanimously opposed the bill, but at least 29 of the Senate's 33 Democrats appear to favor it in the 47-member chamber.

Under Maryland law, contractors bidding on most government projects are required to pay their workers at least the prevailing wage in the market, the most commonly paid wage as determined by the state labor department.

In some jurisdictions, that rate can be the equivalent of union scale, although in most Maryland counties, it is less.

Opponents focused yesterday on the extra cost the measure would likely add if the law were expanded.

General Assembly analysts said it is difficult to calculate precisely, but predict the bill could cost state and local governments $4 million to $22 million next year. That money could be used to build several additional schools, opponents said.

The state is budgeted to spend more than $260 million on school construction next year.

A key sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, said the measure would boost some construction salaries but would not significantly increase the cost of building schools.

"I find that hard to swallow," countered an opponent of the bill, Sen. Robert R. Neall, an Anne Arundel County Democrat.

Bromwell said that by backing the bill, the General Assembly was endorsing the philosophy of a governor who turned back an anti-union opponent in 1998.

"This guy won, and this was his philosophy," Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, told his Senate colleagues yesterday.

"If she had won, we'd be debating right-to-work laws," Bromwell said, referring to Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

Another supporter said the bill would help boost salaries of relatively low-paid construction workers.

"There are plenty of people out there in the construction business who do not have enough money to live on," said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.