- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - A Republican-led Senate panel approved a controversial proposal Tuesday to strip away the state’s prevailing wage for public construction projects, their move opposed by hundreds of union workers at the Capitol.

After the 8-5 vote along party lines, the full Senate was ready to consider the bill doing away with baseline wages for a variety of public projects, from schools to roads. Supporters said the measure could save the state money for other construction projects, while critics said it would unfairly hurt workers.

What senators ultimately vote on still could look much different.

West Virginia is one of 32 states that have a prevailing wage. The state labor commissioner determines the rate annually, and it applies to union and non-union contracts.

Government Organization Chairman Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said he’s interested in discussing a few areas of possible compromise. Some possibilities could be excluding smaller projects from the wage requirement, changing who calculates the wage and how it’s established, and only applying the wage to the percentage of a project that’s state-funded.

Groups in favor of the wage also indicated that they were willing to budge.

“I feel that, in talking to folks, there’s room to find a way to improve this,” said Steve White, Affiliated Construction Trades director. “But repeal would be disastrous.”

Blair, other Republicans and some business groups have long wanted to strip the wage from state law, saying any taxpayer dollars saved in a repeal could potentially go toward more construction projects. The GOP is getting its first real chance, however, after Republicans seized majorities in the Senate and House of Delegates for the first time in more than 80 years.

“Wages for the highly skilled worker could go higher, while less skilled workers would be paid fairly based on the market,” said Art King of Kanawha Stone Company.

Democrats, progressive groups and some contractors countered that the repeal would unnecessarily hurt workers. Some cited separate reports that the wage even saves the government money.

Hundreds of workers, meanwhile, spilled out into the hallways and outside the building Tuesday.

The Division of Highways has asserted that the bill would actually have little to no fiscal impact on its operations. That’s because 80 percent of its projects involve federal money, which triggers the required federal prevailing wage, the division wrote in a fiscal note.

In a note last year on essentially the same bill, the state Division of Labor also said the fiscal impact would be zero, according to the Government Organization attorney.

The House of Delegates has not considered the repeal yet.

Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has not weighed in officially on the measure. But even if Tomblin were to veto legislation reaching his desk, Republicans only need a simple legislative majority to overturn his veto, as long as they complete the process quickly enough.

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