Time has come for policy change

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Government should not establish wages for public-project contractors.

BY NOW, EVERY TAXPAYER knows Wisconsin is in a deep hole when it comes to paying for its transportation infrastructure needs.

So why would the state support any policy that increases its costs?

That’s the practical side of an argument over what is called “prevailing wage.” Under that existing law the state sets minimum pay levels for contractors’ employees when they are working on public projects. The history is fairly simple. When organized labor was a stronger political force these policies were enacted as a protective deal for union employees, setting top-scale pay when the government is writing the check. The practical effect is higher costs for taxpayers.

THERE’S ALSO A consideration of principle. Should the government be dictating what private builders are required to pay their workforce? Isn’t that a matter that ought to be settled between the employer and employee? If government is going to set wage rates for some work in Wisconsin, well, why not for all?

When a company is fully unionized and may have higher pay scales, it may be a disadvantage if bidding for work against non-union companies. We get that.

But here’s another way of looking at it. When a non-union company has lower wages and can offer taxpayers a break, that advantage arbitrarily is taken away by the heavy hand of government under current law. And taxpayers are coerced into writing a bigger check.

Why is that right?

It’s not. It’s government picking winners and losers based on political considerations.

THE RULING REPUBLICAN majority has been talking about changing this policy the past few years for state projects.

But we give the state budget committee credit for removing a measure from Gov. Scott Walker’s budget. Prevailing wage has been the policy for Wisconsin for a long time and deserves to be considered and debated outside the catch-all budget. The Joint Committee on Finance stripped out several policy provisions for separate consideration, which is the right thing to do.

Two legislators, both Republicans — Sen. Leah Vukmir and Rep. Rob Hutton, both of Brookfield — have introduced separate legislation that would repeal the prevailing wage standard for state road-building projects. The stand-alone bill would have to pass both houses of the legislature and be signed by the governor to become law.

THE TIME HAS COME. The objective for government always should be to give taxpayers the biggest bang for the buck, so it makes sense to support change that could save dollars on state projects.

Likewise, this gets the principle right. It is not government’s job to dictate wages to private-sector interests. That should be decided between employees and employers, in accord with market conditions.

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