JEFFERSON CITY — The way Missouri calculates the minimum wage for public works projects needs to change — but that's where the agreement ends for critics and supporters of Republican proposals aimed at reworking the calculating process.
Lawmakers were considering two proposals Tuesday that would change the state's "prevailing wage," which is the pay rate that cities, counties and other governmental entities must pay for construction projects. The rate is usually higher than the state minimum wage, though it varies by occupation and location.
Currently, the pay rate is calculated by the state's labor department using voluntary wage surveys sent in by labor unions and private contractors. But Republican senators from rural parts of Missouri said that results in a wage far higher than typical wages in their areas, which means projects can be too expensive for municipalities and school districts — and needs go unmet.
"If (local governments) could get things done cheaper, they would do them," Sen. Jay Wasson, R-Nixa, said during a packed Senate committee hearing on the proposals.
For example, the prevailing wage for a pipefitter — $34.25 an hour — is the same in suburban St. Louis County as in rural Dunklin County in southeast Missouri. There was consensus that part of the problem may be because wage reporting is voluntary, so the wage could be calculated using incomplete data.
One Republican proposal would address that problem. Sen. Mike Parson, of Bolivar, outlined legislation that would base the prevailing wage in 89 rural Missouri counties on labor calculations from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, instead of relying on voluntary state reporting. The other GOP plan, sponsored by Sen. Dan Brown, of Rolla, would eliminate the prevailing wage altogether.
But Emily Martin, president of St. Louis-based Aschinger Electric, is opposed to both proposals.
She said Parson's plan is the wrong approach. She said wage reporting for private jobs in a county already exists, and that additional reporting by contractors could make the wage calculations more accurate. Other opponents said the federal statistics could include non-construction trade wages, throwing off the calculation.
And she said Brown's plan just sidesteps the issue by not addressing problems with the system, saying: "It's throwing the baby out with the bathwater."
Last year, Republicans tried to push through legislation that would waive the prevailing wage for disaster areas in response to rebuilding efforts after the deadly 2011 tornado in Joplin. The measure stalled as Senate Democrats filibustered over concerns the bill would lower wages.
This year's proposals were debated in the Senate Small Business, Insurance and Industry Committee. No vote was taken Tuesday, though Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard said Monday that the Senate would spend time this year debating prevailing wage legislation.