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Editorial: Bernalillo County vote to exempt pet project reeks of hypocrisy

Back in September, we wondered whether Bernalillo County Commissioners Debbie O’Malley and Jim Collie required their roofing, lawn maintenance or plumbing companies to provide proof their workers have union-level health care and retirement benefits.

The two commissioners at the time were co-sponsoring the so-called Community Workforce Agreement, a misnomered euphemism for anti-competitive legislation that essentially requires union participation in large county projects.

O’Malley, Collie and other county leaders were warned by officials with the Associated Builders and Contractors New Mexico and Northern New Mexico Independent Electrical Contractors that the ordinance would stifle competition and drive up construction costs as much as 18%. Commissioners save for Lonnie Talbert voted to pass the ordinance anyway, though they first raised the project threshold from $5 million to $7 million.

Now, contractors and subcontractors selected for county construction projects costing at least $7 million and employing skilled workers in three or more crafts have to execute a project labor agreement, which dictates some level of union member participation. O’Malley said the goal was for all people working on job sites to have such benefits as health insurance; critics unsuccessfully argued most contractors already provide health care and other fringe benefits, and the ordinance would primarily benefit union contractors, which represent only a fraction of the state’s construction workforce.

So what have county leaders done with the first eligible project to break ground since the CWA took effect? They voted 4-1 not to apply their new Community Workforce Agreement ordinance to the West Central Route 66 Visitor Center. Talk about do as we say, not as we do. The hypocrisy stinks to high heaven.

The boondoggle visitor center is estimated to cost about $11.6 million, and while the county has $11.7 million available, including contributions from the city of Albuquerque and the state, concerns are the CWA will bust the budget.

So now – all of the sudden – construction costs count. Only O’Malley maintained the courage of her misplaced convictions and voted to apply the CWA to the visitor center. Before the roll call, County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada pleaded with fellow commissioners not to require the CWA on his pet project. Quezada said he was worried about costs and delays, and feared construction bids might come in above the available funding. Where was all that concern about the public bottom line back in September when he voted for the CWA?

We’ve been told state law sets the wage rates on public works projects and labor costs shouldn’t change, regardless of a CWA. So why the double standard? Could it be that the CWA was a bad idea to begin with and when they (actually their constituents) have to pick up the tab, county leaders see it for what it is – politically motivated legislation intended to appease labor unions?

It’s funny how signing the front of checks changes one’s perspective. The ordinance clearly would provide an advantage to union contractors at the expense of more than 90% of New Mexico’s private construction workforce that does not belong to a union.

It sure isn’t working out in its first test case.

If O’Malley and Collie, and the rest of the county commissioners want to require their roofing, lawn maintenance or plumbing companies to provide proof their workers have union-level health care and retirement benefits, that’s their business.

But, as our elected leaders, they have a fiduciary responsibility to deliver taxpayers the best bang for their buck on every public project.

The commission’s decision to exempt the very first project that qualifies under this ordinance shows just how misguided it really is.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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