Republicans take aim at Nevada's prevailing wage law

CARSON CITY — A Republican assemblyman who wants to amend Nevada’s prevailing wage law argued Wednesday that construction workers “need a job today,” not extra money to allow them to buy a boat or a motor home.

Assemblyman Cresent Hardy, R-Mesquite, also argued that the additional money workers earn through the prevailing wage laws does not go “into the employee’s pocket; it goes to the national unions.”

A contractor and the assistant minority leader, Hardy ticked off some members of the Assembly Government Affairs Committee with his comments. Packed rooms of citizens attended the hearing teleconferenced between Las Vegas and Carson City.

Assemblywoman Peggy Pierce, D-Las Vegas, argued that paying decent wages is important to the health of a community.

Prevailing wages, or the pay workers receive on public projects, are determined through a survey of labor pay in an area by the state labor commissioner. Often, however, the pay comes close to what unions pay, in part because most surveys are not returned.

Hardy’s Assembly Bill 318 would lift the project threshold of $100,000 on which prevailing wages must be paid to $1.5 million. The $100,000 threshold was set in 1985.

The bill would remove a requirement that employees — if their work week does not exceed 40 hours — must be paid overtime for any hours over eight that they work in a day.

Hardy has been the key lawmaker seeking to reform prevailing wage laws since he joined the Legislature in 2011. His efforts have failed because of the traditional Democratic support for unions.

Democrats hold a 27-15 membership lead in the Assembly.

Government Affairs Chairwoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno, took no vote on the bill. If the measure is not passed out of committee by April 12, then it is dead under legislative rules.

After the hearing, about 100 members of the Building and Trades Council of Northern Nevada protested outside the Legislative Building. While Paul McKenzie, a labor lobbyist, expressed confidence the bill will die, he added, “You never can tell what legislators will do.”

Danny Thompson, secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO, said the $100,000 was set during the last legislative session when Republicans controlled the Assembly. At the time he was an assemblyman and the Republicans wanted to eliminate prevailing wages entirely, but hundreds of workers protested. Before that session the threshold had been $2,000.

If the bill is approved, Thompson argued, employers will stop providing health care for workers, and that will lead to the state covering their costs through Medicaid.

“What you are really doing here is shifting the burden from private employers to the state of Nevada to take care of their employees,” he testified.

Hardy cited a Nevada Policy Research Institute study that said the prevailing wage law adds 46 percent to construction worker pay in Southern Nevada, a Boston study that shows it adds 22 percent to pay, and an Ohio study that concludes it adds 5 percent to 10 percent to the cost of schools. The institute is a conservative think tank based in Las Vegas.

He acknowledged the seemingly contradictory wide range of the findings.

“We are adding substantially to the cost of public construction,” he said.

But Pierce questioned who funded the studies, saying she and others have come to realize that such studies are funded by wealthy, anti-labor donors.

In backing Hardy’s bill, Nevada Policy Research Institute lobbyist Geoff Lawrence contended they suspect “bias in favor of trade unions” by the labor commissioner’s wage surveys. His own analysis is prevailing wage payments add 13.2 percent to costs of schools.

A Building and Trades Council study of nine recent public projects in Northern Nevada found that pay and benefits constitute 23 percent of the total project costs.

Union representatives said the bill was designed to attack Nevada unions and if enacted would save only a minor amount of money, while the state would be stuck with higher social welfare costs.

Assemblyman John Ellison, R-Elko, also a contractor, said his hope is the bill “might get some of the workforce out there working longer.”

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.