- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2000

ANNAPOLIS Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening has included a fair share of hotly debated issues in his 2000 legislative program, but none may produce more outrage than his proposal that contractors who build public schools be required to pay state-mandated wage scales.
The proposed extension of Maryland's prevailing-wage law does not have the high profile of Mr. Glendening's "smart guns" bill or his plan to have the state buy textbooks for students at parochial and private schools.
But it is anathema to Republican lawmakers and the business community and is unpopular as well with many Democratic legislators and county and school officials.
"This is just crazy," said an irritated House Minority Leader Robert Kittleman, a Republican representing Howard and Montgomery counties. "It's just really bad, bad."
Maryland already has a prevailing-wage law for construction projects where the state pays 50 percent or more of the costs. The Prevailing Wage Unit establishes minimum pay scales for various classes of workers and apprentices based on prevailing wages paid in different regions of the state.
Contractors on those projects must pay at least the state-mandated wages, which are generally higher than those paid by nonunion builders.
But the law does not apply to schools unless the state pays 75 percent of the cost, which is rare. Mr. Glendening will ask that the figure be reduced to 50 percent, which would expand the prevailing-wage law to most school-construction projects in the state.
The governor sees it as a matter of fairness.
"The men and women who build our schools deserve to make a decent wage," he said in his State of the State address. "The time is right to do the right thing, and I ask for your help."
In a briefing for reporters two weeks ago, Mr. Glendening said nonunion contractors often hire cheap labor from out of state, depriving Marylanders of good-paying jobs.
Opponents of prevailing wages scoff at the argument that a law is necessary to assure decent wages.
The vast majority of Maryland construction workers are employed by firms putting up privately financed buildings that set their own wage scales, Mr. Kittleman said.
"What the governor is saying is that the market system doesn't work," he said.
Maryland has one of the most labor-friendly legislatures in the nation and repeated efforts to repeal the current prevailing-wage law have gotten nowhere.
But expanding the law will be harder for labor and its allies than simply protecting a law already in place, especially since it is expected to face considerable opposition from local governments.
Republicans will use the powerful argument that the law would punish schoolchildren by taking away money needed for classrooms, books and supplies.
Senate Minority Leader Martin Madden, Howard Republican, argues that if the prevailing-wage law is extended to school construction, it will increase costs of building a school by 15 percent to 30 percent, increasing the amount of money county governments will have to put into their construction budgets.
"That means there's going to be less dollars available for teachers' salaries, for schoolbooks and to wire our classrooms," he said. "The governor's got a good educational record to this point. He runs the real risk of leaving a permanent blemish on his educational legacy."
When a similar bill was introduced last year, but not as part of the governor's package, the Montgomery County Board of Education estimated it would increase construction costs by 20 percent "without any improvements to workmanship or timeliness."
Mike Morrill, Mr. Glendening's communications director, said the prevailing-wage law already applies to other state construction projects and "it has not significantly increased costs."
Allegany County and Baltimore already require the prevailing wage to be paid on local school construction projects.
Mr. Glendening argues that nonunion contractors, if forced to pay higher wages, will cut back on their profits rather than raise their bids. Prevailing-wage laws do not drive up construction costs, Mr. Glendening said.
"That's a patent lie," Mr. Kittleman said. "If you raise the cost of your labor, it's going to raise your cost. It's so simple a second-grader can understand."

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