JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri legislature passed a bill Monday that would change the way wage requirements are calculated for construction projects in rural counties.
Missouri's prevailing wage for public works projects is calculated for each construction trade on a county-by-county basis. The wage is currently based on voluntary wage surveys submitted by contractors performing work in a given county, but when no wages are reported, the collective bargaining rate for that trade is used.
Republican lawmakers say that system is flawed and the calculated prevailing wages for rural counties don't accurately reflect typical pay for those areas. They argue the system creates artificially higher wages that local governments cannot pay, leaving many public works projects incomplete.
"A lot of counties are not adding on to schools and are not doing school repairs," said one of the measure's sponsors, Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla.
Legislation cleared the Senate last week, and the House approved it Monday on a 93-64 vote. It would divide the voluntary wage surveys between union work and non-union work. Then the wage would be set by whichever group, union or non-union, reported more hours of work in that county during the year.
If there are no reports for a given year, then the wage would be set by an average of reports in the county from the past six years. If contractors don't turn in surveys during that time period, then the wage would be set by an average of reports from the previous six years in adjacent counties. If that fails, the prevailing wage would become the current collective bargaining rate for a specific trade in the county.
Some Democrats opposed the measure while arguing that the current system would work if all contractors filled out the annual wage surveys.
"You are asking to lower wages, plain and simple," said Rep. Michael Frame, D-Eureka.
The debate over prevailing wage has been controversial in the Capitol for years. Last year, Senate Republicans proposed exempting governments from the prevailing wage in areas that had been declared disaster zones. Other proposals sought to eliminate the wage requirement altogether for rural counties, but those attempts also failed. The gridlock broke this year after lawmakers reached a compromise that they hope provides a greater incentive for contractors to turn in wage surveys.
Some Republicans aren't completely satisfied with the measure sent to Gov. Jay Nixon, but Brown hopes the governor will approve it.
"It is not too onerous. It is much less onerous than I wanted it to be," he said.
Brown said he wanted to include a change to the definition of "maintenance" work in order to exempt some projects from the prevailing wage requirement. He said a 2011 Missouri Supreme Court decision broadened the definition of "maintenance," which made some constructions susceptible to the prevailing wage that had previously been excluded. That portion was removed from the bill after opposition from Senate Democrats.