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State wage law fought

February 29, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - Washington County contractors are fighting Gov. Parris Glendening's attempt to extend the prevailing wage law to more school construction projects.

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They argue that it will drive up costs and allow fewer schools to be built.

Nearly all of Washington County's representatives to the Maryland General Assembly say they'll try to block the measure.

But one key lawmaker, Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, is undecided.

"I want to hear all sides and look at the numbers. Until then, I'm reserving comment," said Donoghue, who sits on the House Economic Matters Committee, which will review the legislation. A hearing is set for March 9.

Right now, contractors must pay the prevailing wage, which is generally higher than nonunion wages, to workers on any school construction job for which the state is picking up at least 75 percent of the costs.

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Glendening wants to lower the threshold to 50 percent, the standard for other state contracts.

The proposal got the approval of the Senate Finance Committee last week and could come up for a vote in the full Senate this week.

The chances for passage look good, despite the opposition of Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, and Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

"It's going to increase costs significantly. Every school child in Maryland will be affected," Munson said.

Supporters, however, insist that costs will increase less than half of 1 percent.

"We're just looking to provide a fair, family supporting wage to people trying to do an honest day's work," said Glendening spokeswoman Raquel M. Guillory.

Dan Kuczinksy, business representative for Carpenter's Local 340, said contractors will hire more experienced workers who can deliver a quality product.

"Most of your contractors are just going to lose a little bit of their profits. All and all it's going to be a good thing for communities," Kuczinsky said.

Associated Builders and Contractors of the Cumberland Valley has started a letter-writing campaign against the bill.

Executive Director Joan Warner estimates it would trigger a 15 percent increase in construction costs.

"It's a simple fact that if you raise your rates, you're going to have to raise your construction price," Warner said.

At a time when the governor is spending record amounts on school construction, the expansion of the prevailing wage law would reverse progress, said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

"I would question the governor's commitment to education," said Del. Joseph R. Bartlett, R-Frederick/Washington.

The Washington County Board of Education is concerned about the potential for increased costs, but hasn't taken a formal position on the issue, said Human Resources Director Phil Ray.

The Maryland Association of Boards of Education is opposed.

"It hurts our children and it hurts the taxpayers," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, said she is leaning against expanding the prevailing wage.

"It would be hard for me to look my constituents in the face and say, 'Sorry we'll have one less school this year,'" Hecht said.

There's little doubt that costs would increase, although no one knows for sure how great the impact would be, Ray said.

The Maryland Department of Legislative Services estimates that it would cost the state an extra $3 million and local governments statewide $1.4 million.

Contractors also argue that prevailing wage laws hurt employment of minorities and women, who are less likely to be certified in a trade.

But Kuczinsky said minorities are encouraged to apply for readily available training programs.

The state determines prevailing wage on a regional basis. It's equal to the pay of 40 percent of the workers in a given trade.

Michael Callas of Callas Contractors said the prevailing wage is often higher than average wages because it takes into account higher salaries paid to construction workers in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., area.

Callas said Glendening is fulfilling a campaign pledge made to union supporters.

"He's paying his promise," he said.

Glendening's office denied that the governor is playing politics.

"He's not going to take the lives of people who are trying to work hard every day and use them as political pawns," Guillory said.

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