West Virginia’s new prevailing wage law has all the makings of a Rorschach inkblot test. Look at this and tell me what you see?Republican and Democrat members of a joint legislative committee have sharply different views of the controversial changes in how the state calculates hourly wages and benefits for various state taxpayer funded projects. That was evident this week when committee members clashed over the progress so far in implementing the new law.Republicans are furious that Workforce West Virginia—the state agency charged with working with WVU and Marshall economists to develop a new methodology for determining prevailing wage—plans to rely heavily on a survey of contractors rather than figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine the hourly rates.State Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson) and other prevailing wage critics have long believed that the survey method favors union contractors over non-union contractors, driving up pay rates and subsequently the cost of public projects. Carmichael charged during Monday’s committee meeting that Workforce West Virginia’s proposal to calculate the wages “is not in compliance with the law.”Committee Democrats counter that the Republicans drove the prevailing wage fix during the last legislative session and now they are upset with the outcome. “The majority party crafted the language and now they’re trying to claim the language wasn’t followed,” House Minority Leader Tim Miley told the Charleston Daily Mail.So what now?Workforce will apparently proceed with the survey method despite GOP objections. It’s unclear how long that will take and the current prevailing wage law expires at the end of the month. State financed public projects bid after July 1 would not follow pre-determined pay scales.“I think you have a real crisis brewing in both the business and labor communities,” Senate Minority Leader and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Kessler (D-Marshall) said on Metronews “Talkline” Tuesday, a charge Carmichael dismissed.“There is no crisis and let’s just face it—the absolute worst thing that could happen is we go a period of time where the free market prevailed,” Carmichael said sarcastically.But there are more widespread implications from the dispute.Republican leaders had the votes during the session to repeal prevailing wage completely. Senate President and Republican Gubernatorial candidate Bill Cole (R-Mercer) and his leadership team believe they compromised in good faith with labor and labor-friendly Democrats to come up with a new prevailing wage methodology that more accurately reflected the labor market.They now believe they’ve been dealt a pig in a poke. There’s even suspicion by some Republicans that labor leaders exerted pressure on the Tomblin administration to soften the impact of the changes, an allegation Affiliated Construction Trades director Steve White refutes.“We certainly stated that the survey is the way to go and certainly mentioned that to the administration folks, just like we did to the Legislature,” White said. “But did we pound them or have meetings? No.”Whatever good faith that existed among the stakeholders during the session has now dissipated. The next time prevailing wage comes up in the Legislature the discussion is more likely to be about an outright repeal, and the Republicans have the votes.That’s one way to clear up the confusion.
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