The state Senate added a partial repeal of Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law to the state budget, offering a possible resolution to the weeks-long delay of the budget’s passage.
The addition was made as an amendment to the state’s $73.3 billion budget during Tuesday’s Senate session. The amendment exempts from the prevailing wage as much as 90 percent of public projects that now are subject to it, according to Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, who co-authored the measure.
Late Tuesday, the Senate was still debating the budget ahead of a final vote, with a final vote expected sometime after midnight. The Assembly was scheduled to take it up Wednesday. Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said he expects the Assembly to concur with the budget, including the prevailing wage changes.
The prevailing wage amendment passed the Senate on a 17-16 vote. Two Republican senators, Richard Gudex of Fond du Lac and Howard Marklein of Spring Green, voted against it.
Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, offered the amendment.
It fully repeals the state’s prevailing wage — a minimum pay rate for workers on publicly funded construction projects — on projects funded by local units of government. On state-funded projects, the amendment calls for the federal, instead of the state, prevailing wage to be used.
Until now, Republican senators have disagreed on whether to fully or partially repeal the prevailing wage or enact less-sweeping changes to it. At least three Republican senators who support a full repeal of prevailing wage — Lasee, Stephen Nass of Whitewater and Duey Stroebel of Saukville — made their votes for the budget contingent on whether it included major prevailing wage changes.
The prevailing wage changes in the Senate amendment would take effect in January 2017. The 18-month delay is meant to give contractors time to adapt to the changes, according to Wanggaard.
Wanggaard estimated that 80 to 90 percent of projects currently subject to Wisconsin’s prevailing wage would be exempt from it under the proposal.
Proponents of the measure say it will help cities, counties, towns and school districts get the best value on construction projects. They also say it will encourage a broader range of contractors to bid on public projects.
“Government should not be in the business of artificially inflating wages,” Nass said during Tuesday’s Senate debate.
Critics dispute that the changes will generate substantial savings for taxpayers. They say curtailing prevailing wage will enable out-of-state or shoddy contractors to underbid Wisconsin-based or other quality builders for public projects.
They also note that even some of the measure’s supporters acknowledge it will cut wages for workers.
“We are driving down wages needlessly,” Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, said Tuesday.
Some contractor groups, including Associated Builders & Contractors of Wisconsin, have lobbied for a complete repeal of prevailing wage. A spokesman for that group, John Mielke, said Tuesday that it’s pleased with the partial repeal, calling it a “significant reform.”
Other builder groups, such as the Wisconsin Contractors Coalition, have opposed changes to the prevailing wage.
“The repeal of prevailing wage is going to cut wages,” said Steve Lyons, a spokesman for the coalition.
Wanggaard, speaking before the Senate debate, said talented trade workers will keep earning a good living if the proposal becomes law.
“The skilled worker is going to continue to get a decent wage,” Wanggaard said.