While the proposal is expected to face changes, lawmakers moved forward with a hearing Tuesday on a bill that would repeal Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law. A Senate committee heard hours of testimony on the proposal, which would currently end a long standing requirement that those attached to public works projects be paid a wage set by the state.
A Senate committee started off the hearing with testimony from the sponsors of the bill, state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) and Rep. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield). Vukmir told the panel that the change could save taxpayers millions of dollars by ending restrictions on wages paid for government projects. She asked “How in good conscience can we asked locally elected officials to do more with less, while simultaneously requiring them to pay outrageously inflated construction costs?”
Democrats fired back at those claims though, with Sen. Bob Wirch (D-Kenosha) arguing that change could result in substandard work being done on projects. Milwaukee Democrat Chris Larson said it’s about “whether we’re going to have a bare standard in our society for how we’re treating people…for what we’re going to have on work done in our communities.”
Local government and business leaders offered mixed reactions to the proposal.
Bill Smith, President of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, compared the prevailing wage to a “super minimum wage,” where what workers are paid is often set at rates higher than local wages. Smith called the law “bad public policy.”
Several construction company owners defended the law though, arguing the wage requirement is needed to ensure a level playing field for companies bidding on public works contracts. Jeff Parisi with Parisi Construction noted that many construction fields are physically demanding and seasonally dependent, meaning workers often have to rely on higher than average wages to support their families during the off-season and to save enough for retirement. He argued that repealing the law would “break down the system.”
The future of the bill remains in question, with Republican leaders in both chambers indicating a full repeal of the prevailing wage likely does not have the support needed to pass. An option that is being pursued would dramatically increase the threshold for projects where it is required, but it remains unclear if even that has broad support in the legislature.