Crowds turned out Wednesday to weigh in on a two-pronged, Republican-sponsored bill that would provide money to build new schools and ease overcrowding, but suspend “prevailing wage” rules favored by unions for school construction work.
Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, a Reno Republican who co-sponsored SB119 along with Las Vegas Republican Sen. Becky Harris, said the prevailing wage rates set by the state labor commissioner and required by law on public works projects don’t reflect the market value for construction.
“We’re forcing taxpayers to pay substantially more money to buy the exact same thing,” Kieckhefer said during a hearing before the Senate Government Affairs Committee. “We need to maximize scarce resources.”
The “bond rollover” portion of the bill, which is favored by both parties, would give school boards the authority to continue issuing construction bonds for 10 years beyond the time period approved by voters. Districts would not be allowed to raise tax rates to pay debt service on the bonds.
The proposal comes after Clark County voters in 2012 roundly rejected a measure that would have raised property taxes and provided funds for school construction. Harris said Clark and Washoe county school districts now need to build 28 new schools and expand 10 to meet the demands of a growing student population.
Bond rollover was also proposed by Democratic Sen. Debbie Smith and is supported by school districts, the state school board association and the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce.
But scores of people came to protest what the AFL-CIO labor group describes as an attack on prevailing wages, and several school and business groups took a neutral position on that portion of the bill.
“If this bill passes, it will take money out of construction workers’ paychecks,” Nevada AFL-CIO Executive Secretary-Treasurer Danny Thompson said. “This is the wrong thing to do. Some of these people haven’t worked for five years.”
Prevailing wage rates preserve a common pay standard in a certain county and generally prevent out-of-state contractors from undercutting local companies’ bids. For example, the labor commissioner requires that a journeyman carpenter on a public works project in Clark County must be paid $53.76 an hour.
Thompson said keeping contractor’s wages relatively high ensures highly skilled tradesmen stay in the state, and allows training and apprenticeship programs to flourish.
Proponents say paying prevailing wage leads to cost savings in the long run because workers are more skilled and make fewer mistakes, while opponents dispute those claims and say prevailing wage costs taxpayers more.
Democratic Sen. Kelvin Atkinson questioned why the bond rollover was presented in tandem with a prevailing wage provision, which is much more controversial.
Harris said that lawmakers needed to be prudent with taxpayer money if they circumvent the voters to extend bonds. Republicans also assert that the bond rollover would not pass the Republican-controlled Legislature if it didn’t include concessions on prevailing wage rules.