GOP pushes to repeal public project wages law

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Indiana's law for setting wages on public construction projects would be repealed under a plan that Republican House leaders said Monday they aimed to approve this year, a move that could set off a fresh fight with labor unions.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said studies from other states had found such changes could save an estimated 10 percent to 20 percent on state construction projects by allowing more contractors to pay less than union-scale wages.

The bill set for a public hearing Tuesday morning by the House labor committee would eliminate the boards that set construction wages for each state or local project costing more than $350,000. Those five-member boards, which include people appointed by labor unions and an association of non-union contractors, set what is known as the common construction wage that any contractor on the building project must pay workers.

The new push comes three years after Republicans pushed through the state's right-to-work law that drew thousands of union protesters to the Statehouse.

Bosma said House Republicans are backing the construction wage bill as a way to protect taxpayers and help school districts and local governments that are strapped for money.

"It would allow true, open competition in the marketplace among qualified contractors rather than only competition on a government-mandated wage," Bosma told The Associated Press.

House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City said the proposal was one that "should die under the weight of its own poor motives."

"This is an effort that's being pushed by contractors that want to bring in cheap, out-of-state labor instead of using our own skilled Hoosier employees," Pelath said.

Republican-backed changes made to the construction wage law in 1995 brought more than 20,000 union workers to a massive rally at the Statehouse and the law has remained largely intact since then.

A spokesman for the Indiana AFL-CIO referred a request for comment to a leader of the Indiana Building Contractors Alliance, who didn't immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.

Mike Kerr, a vice president of Wilhelm Construction, told WTHR-TV Channel 13 that his company supports keeping the law in place. He said skilled union trades are an important part of Wilhelm's business plan.

"You want somebody putting that steel up that's had the proper training. Not somebody picked up off the street for the cheapest wage," he said.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, said the law's repeal would be a boost to cities, counties and school districts who've been squeezed under the statewide property tax caps.

"This is a way to help them save some money," said Torr, who was a leading sponsor of the right-to-work law adopted in 2012, a year after boycotts by Democratic legislators stopped action in the House for about a month.

Pelath said he believed the Republican proposal would harm many contractors around the state while driving down wages.

"There's an economic theory around here that the solution to every problem is to get people to work for less and to have shoddy work done on taxpayer-funded projects," he said.

Bosma disputed that the quality of work on projects would suffer, saying state laws on bidding and contractor responsibility would remain in place. He said not all House Republicans would support the change, but that the GOP leadership had decided late last week to move forward with the bill, just ahead of Thursday's deadline for committee action on House proposals this legislative session.

"We have a very strong group of folks who support a free market in our caucus and this is very consistent with their core beliefs," Bosma said.

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