Schools hurt by wage law

June 02, 2000|By Alex X. Mooney

DURING the 2000 legislative session of the Maryland General Assembly, the Glendening administration rammed through legislation that will cripple our state's public education system for years to come.

The bill, signed into law last month, requires the payment of the prevailing wage on school construction projects. This construction wage is almost always the union rate - meaning higher expenses for our taxpayers.

This prevailing wage law means ailing public schools in Maryland, pure and simple.

The Department of Legislative Services conducted a study in 1989 demonstrating that higher wage rates increase the cost of construction on our school projects by 5 to 15 percent. Translated into real terms, this means that up to 18 elementary schools will not be built each year in Maryland.

The prevailing wage law also means that critical financial resources will be taken away from other education priorities. The legislature has worked hard to enhance teachers' salaries and to provide new textbooks and supplies for our children. However, these important initiatives are jeopardized by higher school construction costs.

Throughout the debate, the Glendening administration has continually insisted that the prevailing wage law will not cause dramatic cost increases in public school construction.

In examining the experiences of other states, the facts are not on their side.

Florida's legislature repealed the state's prevailing wage law after it learned of a Florida State School Board Association survey that showed during the previous four years which school construction had been exempted from prevailing wages. In those cases, taxpayers saved $37 million, or about 15 percent, of total school construction costs.

In 1997, Ohio legislators approved a bill exempting construction undertaken by local school districts from the state's prevailing wage laws. The fiscal note estimated savings to be between $11.1 million and $23.8 million annually.

The list goes on.

A national study conducted by University of Maryland Associate Professor A.J. Thiebolt concluded that school construction costs were 13 percent higher in states where prevailing wage laws applied.

His study noted that if all states were to eliminate their prevailing wage laws, a total savings in school construction costs could be $1.7 billion over seven years, or $239 million per year, for the same volume of construction.

The facts are indisputable. School construction costs will rise, and our education resources will be tapped. Already, jurisdictions throughout Maryland are considering higher local taxes and fees.

There is something that Marylanders can do to prevent this unacceptable law from taking effect on July 1 - get enough signatures to place the bill on public statewide referendum on November's ballot. Then, and only then, will there be a substantive debate on the merits of this law.

Information on the petition drive can be obtained by accessing on the Internet. The petition form and the text of the bill can be downloaded, and there are instructions on how to complete the form and where to return it.

Marylanders have to act fast. The effort requires the submission of 46,128 signatures of registered voters by June 30; one-third of those signa- tures had to be turned in by Wednesday.

This is not a Democratic issue. This is not a Republican issue. Members of both parties voted against the bill during the session. Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer and state Treasurer Richard N. Dixon opposed the legislation.

No, the issue is about good government. It's about preserving our state's education resources. Our children must not be used as pawns in a political payoff anymore.

This time, we can do something about it.

Alex X. Mooney is a Republican state senator who represents Frederick and Washington Counties and is leading the referendum drive.

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