Bill to raise wages heads to governor

`Prevailing' rate to be paid on some school construction

April 01, 2000|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

A Glendening administration bill aimed at improving wages for school construction workers passed the House of Delegates yesterday to the cheers of union officials and now heads to the governor for his signature.

The union-backed legislation was a key element of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's legislative agenda and a prime target of Republican critics who accused Glendening of repaying a campaign debt to organized labor.

"Hallelujah," said Jerry Lozupone, a union representative, moments after he was escorted out of the House gallery for applauding the chamber's 92-44 vote for the bill. "This is going to lead to a more highly skilled worker being on these jobs. We're going to get a better product for our dollar."

The legislation will require school systems to pay the local "prevailing wage," which is sometimes based on union pay scales, on construction projects that exceed $500,000 and for which the state pays at least 50 percent of the cost. State law already requires that the prevailing wage be paid on other public works projects.

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

Early in the current session, Glendening responded to local governments' concerns about rising school construction costs by suggesting that those who opposed the bill would see less money for new schools in the state budget.

Leading Democrats in both houses were then able to push the bill through with relative ease, arguing that it would lead not only to better wages, but also to better school buildings. "The very heart of `prevailing wage' is about quality workmanship," said Del. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who chairs the Economic Matters Committee.

Current law requires such wages to be paid on school construction when the state pays at least 75 percent of the cost of the project, which effectively excludes most projects.

The General Assembly's debate about lowering that threshold focused mostly on whether doing so would significantly raise the price of school construction. Legislative analysts said it is difficult to calculate precisely but predicted that the bill might cost state and local governments $4 million to $22 million next year, when Glendening has proposed $260 million in state school construction spending.

Opponents argued that the measure could lead to cost increases of 10 percent or more as Glendening is trumpeting the importance of building more schools.

"It will raise the cost of school construction," said Del. Richard La Vay, a Montgomery County Republican. "You're going to build less schools."

Supporters countered that under the bill, costs wouldn't rise much because the state's share of many school projects would not be high enough to trigger the requirement for paying higher wages.

"The vast majority of new construction will not meet the threshold," Busch said.

Glendening and organized labor saw yesterday's final vote as a big victory.

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