Prevailing attitudes

November 01, 2005

Lost amid last week's political deluge in Washington was a ray of actual good news coming out of the White House -- and a storm warning for Maryland's leadership. President Bush decided to lift his Sept. 8 order that had allowed federal contractors repairing the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina to pay their workers lower-than-average wages. Under the Davis-Bacon Act, such contractors are normally required to pay the prevailing local wage. But Mr. Bush chose to suspend that requirement for the storm-damaged sections of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi to help the region.

White House officials said Mr. Bush changed his mind after lobbying from Republican moderates. What they -- and most Democrats -- argued was that suspending Davis-Bacon caused storm victims to be victimized a second time when rebuilding jobs were given to out-of-state workers hired by big contractors looking for cheap labor. The president's spokesman seemed almost apologetic, noting that Mr. Bush had always intended the suspension to be temporary.

The move was particularly noteworthy because conservatives have always cast the Davis-Bacon Act as a payoff to big unions. But on closer inspection, the broader benefits of prevailing wage rules became clear. By not requiring companies to pay what, for instance, a New Orleans carpenter normally earns, local firms and workers were put at a distinct disadvantage. And it's not even clear that there was any short-term cost savings to the federal government, only an obvious long-term cost to the region.

With that in mind, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s decision this year to gut Maryland's prevailing wage law seems all the more outrageous. Like Davis-Bacon, the state's prevailing wage rule ensures that local workers have a fair shot at taxpayer-financed jobs. In January, Mr. Ehrlich submitted a budget without funding for enforcement of prevailing wage. Then he resisted efforts by the legislature to restore the money. Only in June, when his staff noticed that a 1997 law required that the office be staffed, did he agree to keep it open.

Maryland's prevailing wage law remains on the books. How aggressively is the Ehrlich administration enforcing it? That's not clear. But Mr. Ehrlich ought to pay attention to this post-Katrina lesson. It's pretty outrageous when average working people don't merit a crack at the jobs their own tax dollars created. It's not good business and -- if the 37 House Republicans who protested the Davis-Bacon suspension are to be believed -- it's not good politics, either.

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