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Debates simmering over wages, education board

March 20, 2015

Indiana lawmakers are expected to again face contentious debates in the next few weeks over repealing the state law on public construction project wages and allowing the replacement of Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz as leader of the state Board of Education.

The Republican-dominated Legislature hasn't taken public action on either proposal since giving them initial approval last month, although Senate and House leaders say private negotiations on both issues are ongoing with less than six weeks remaining in this year's legislative session.

A group that includes contractors against repealing the construction wage law has been airing television commercials to build public support. Opponents of the law that makes the state superintendent the automatic leader of the Board of Education have continued protests, including one that drew hundreds of people in Terre Haute last weekend.

The House advanced the bill to eliminate the boards that set what is known as the common construction wage which workers must be paid on most state or local projects.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long decided against assigning the bill to the Senate labor committee, whose chairman, Sen. Phil Boots of Crawfordsville, is among some GOP senators who believe the subject should be given to a special committee for review after the legislative session.

Long said he expected the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee would take up the proposal by the end of this month. Long supports the repeal, but alluded to debate among Senate Republicans.

"I'm not going to say what this bill will or won't look like because I'm not the dictator in this situation," he said. "This is a caucus decision and we'll talk about it and ultimately come up with a solution that we're comfortable with, hopefully."

Gov. Mike Pence and other supporters of the repeal say it would save tens of millions of tax dollars each year on public construction projects by allowing more contractors to pay wages below union scale. Opponents dispute those projections and argue the change would open the door for low-paying, out-of-state contractors to underbid on projects.

Michelle Boyd, executive director of the Indiana Building Contractors Alliance, said that construction companies which hire union workers have been meeting with senators to explain how their businesses could be hurt by the repeal and the damage that could to be done to the $42 million a year those companies invest in training programs.

The House, meanwhile, is in the midst of private talks over a bill allowing Pence's 10 appointees to the Board of Education to elect their own chairman, most likely ousting Ritz from the position that the elected state superintendents have automatically filled for decades.

Republican backers of the change say it's needed to address dysfunction between Ritz—the only Democrat controlling a Statehouse office—and the other board members as they've struggled for control of education policy.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said he had "reservations" about a Senate-backed plan that would shrink it to a nine-member board made up of the state superintendent, four appointments by the governor and one appointment each for the Republican and Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate.

House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath said allowing the removal of Ritz as the board leader would undermine the will of voters who elected her in 2012 and that the makeup of board appointments "is sort of ancillary."

Pelath said he didn't believe the agenda being pushed by legislative Republicans is addressing the state's most important troubles.

"How is it putting any money in other people's pockets?" Pelath said. "How is it growing our middle class? What is it doing to invest in workers?"

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