- Associated Press - Thursday, February 12, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginia senators passed a compromise Thursday to scale back the state’s prevailing wage on public construction projects, switching from the full-blown repeal that Republicans had enough votes to pass.

The GOP-led Senate voted 23-11 to change the wage requirement for public construction projects. Some Democrats sided with the majority.

Before the bill was amended Thursday, it would have deleted the wage altogether. Hundreds of concerned union workers filled the Capitol earlier this month, only to see senators advance the repeal to the floor.

After days of behind-the-scenes negotiations, senators and trade workers sketched a compromise to remove the wage’s calculation from the Division of Labor. Workforce West Virginia and economists from West Virginia University and Marshall University would calculate it.

The wage would be reported to lawmakers to approve the methodology.

The bill sets a cap saying projects less than $500,000 wouldn’t be subject to the wage. Of the 32 states with a prevailing wage, only Maryland has that same cap on projects under $500,000. Other states have lower thresholds, while nine states have no caps, according to the federal Department of Labor.

“We have crafted and struck the proper balance, we believe,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson.

Still, several Democrats had qualms about the changes. The wage affects union and nonunion contracts.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, was a sponsor of Thursday’s amendment, but voted against the final bill. He said data on the new wage should be gathered before changing the law.

Sen. Douglas Facemire, D-Braxton, said there’s uncertainty for workers over whether their pay would be cut.

“How can we say that this is good when we don’t even know what the end result’s going to be?” Facemire said.

Republicans say the free market should determine the wages, and think more projects could be completed with an adjusted rate. Democrats say working class people could suffer, and question whether money would be saved with major changes.

Sen. David Nohe, R-Wood, raised his voice at construction workers in the Senate gallery, naming smaller projects he said had overinflated price tags.

“You want to talk about children?” Nohe shouted. “We could have recreation, playgrounds — no!”

The Republican-led House of Delegates will now consider the bill. Steve White, Affiliated Construction Trades director, said the proposal was an improvement from repeal, but still needs work.

Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has said, generally, there’s room to compromise in the dollar-amount threshold and the wage’s calculation.

The Division of Highways has asserted a repeal would have little to no fiscal impact on it. Eighty percent of its projects involve federal money, triggering the federal prevailing wage.

Last Thursday, Republicans held the party line in a 16-18 Senate vote to reject the repeal bill, a de facto tally on the repeal itself.

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