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          Front Page  upfront

Opponents: Wage Bill Would Reduce Projects

By Thomas J. Cole
Journal Staff Writer
          Supporters of union-backed legislation to change the way wages and benefits are set for workers on state and local public works projects in New Mexico say the bill would result in a modest increase in costs.
        Opponents point to estimates that say the change would drive up the costs of road work and new schools by $61.7 million in the first year alone.
        "There are going to be fewer projects. ... We don't have an extra $60 million, at all," says Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming, who chairs the Senate budget committee.
        Smith was the only Democrat to vote against the wage legislation when the Senate considered it Feb. 16. The legislation (SB 33) passed 24-16, with only Democrats voting in favor.
        Smith says the legislation is designed to pursue the agenda of organized labor "regardless of the cost to taxpayers." He adds, "It's one of those sickening parts of government."
        But Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, a sponsor of the legislation, says the controversy over the measure is a "tempest in a teapot."
        Cisneros and House Speaker Ben Luján, D-Santa Fe, also a sponsor, say the measure wouldn't dramatically drive up wages on public works projects.
        "It's going to have a little bit of an impact," Luján says.
        Cisneros dismisses the estimates of increased costs for road jobs and schools — which came from the state Transportation Department and Public School Facilities Authority — as being the work of opponents.
        "I don't believe any of them," he says.
        And even if wages and benefits did jump, that is good for workers and the economy, Cisneros and Luján say.
        The legislation passed by the Senate is now pending in the House. It has approved an identical bill (HB329) and forwarded it to the Senate, where it is now pending.
        The House vote was 39-25, with only two Democrats opposing the bill.
        The legislation would amend the Public Works Minimum Wage Act, which requires contractors on state or local government-funded projects of more than $60,000 to pay prevailing wages to their workers. Prevailing wages are determined by a state survey of wages paid to union and nonunion labor.
        Under the change being considered by lawmakers, prevailing wages would instead be determined by the wages and fringe benefits union workers receive under their collective bargaining agreements.
        Wages earned by union labor are generally higher than those of nonunion labor. Taking nonunion labor out of the calculation of wages on public works jobs would increase project costs.
        The legislation would make contractors with union labor more competitive in bidding on public works jobs because they no longer would be paying wages higher than those paid by contractors with nonunion labor.
        "The act levels the play field," says Ray Baca, executive director of the New Mexico Building & Construction Trades Council.
        Dawn Matson, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of New Mexico, says the legislation is unfair since 92 percent of construction labor in the state is nonunion.
        According to an analysis of the wage-law change by legislative staff, New Mexico would become only the fifth state to use union wages to determine wages to be paid on public works jobs.
        "They still exist. They haven't perished from the Earth," Cisneros says of the other states.
        One of those states has reported an increased cost of labor of about 5 percent on public works projects. Another has said it saved nearly 11 percent by exempting school construction from the law requiring union wages.
        Some opponents of the proposed change in New Mexico say public works projects in rural areas could see the most dramatic increase in wages.
        The Legislature previously considered the wage-law change in 2007. The legislation passed the House that year by one vote but never made it to the Senate floor.
        The Department of Workforce Solutions is supporting the legislation, and Matson says her contractor group had to sue the agency in 2004 and again in 2005 to stop it from making the change to union wages without the consent of the Legislature.
        So where does Gov. Bill Richardson, who oversees the Department of Workforce Solutions, stand on the wage-law change?
        "We generally do not comment on bills that are not part of the governor's agenda," says Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos.
        Organized labor has deep ties at the Capitol.
        It contributed more than $285,000 to candidates for the Legislature last year. Just a fraction of that money went to Republicans.
        Luján's Speaker Fund, a political action committee, picked up a $5,000 contribution from Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 412, the union that gave the most to lawmakers and is a supporter of the wage change for public works jobs.
        Local 412 also contributed $1,000 to Cisneros.
        Luján is a retired ironworker. Brian Condit, a longtime aide to the governor who now serves as chief of staff, is a former president of the New Mexico Building & Construction Trades Council.
        The political action committee for the Associated Builders and Contractors, which represents contractors with nonunion labor, contributed $35,000 to candidates for the Legislature last year, all Republicans.
        UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. You can reach Thom Cole in Santa Fe at (505) 992-6280 or at tcole@abqjournal.com.
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