Prevailing wage law: Bill might be camel’s nose under this tent

Quietly coursing its way through the legislative labyrinth in Carson is a bill sponsored by Sen. Ben Kieckhefer that would exempt school districts and the university system from having to comply with the prevailing wage law on construction projects. In fact, I can’t find a single news story mentioning the bill — Senate Bill 146.

The prevailing wage law requires that contractors working on state and local public works projects pay workers according to a schedule created by the state labor commissioner. That schedule is derived from a survey of contractors to find what the marketplace pays. But the survey is so time consuming that in reality only union shops bother to comply and thus the “prevailing wage” is always the higher union wage.

State Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (Las Vegas Sun photo)

In 2000 a story by A.D. Hopkins in the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported this inflates the cost of labor on public works projects by 41 percent and cost the taxpayers of then-booming Clark County an extra $2.3 million for every new public high school being built.

In advance of this year’s legislative session, Nevada Policy Research Institute published its “Solutions 2013” handbook with a litany of recommendations for lawmakers. It reported that the prevailing wage law artificially inflates labor costs on public works projects by about 45 percent and costs taxpayers more than $1 billion a year. NPRI pointed out that 10 states have repealed such laws since 1978.

A.D. Hopkins

As currently written SB146 adds to NRS 338.080’s exemptions to the prevailing wage law: “Any contract for a public work to which a school district, a charter school or the Nevada System of Higher Education is a party.” And: “A public work of, or constructed by, a school district, a charter school or the Nevada System of Higher Education.” It also requires twice-a-year reports to the Legislature on what the costs of labor were under the exemption and what they would have been under the prevailing wage schedule — apparently as way to document what the R-J and NPRI have already documented and is uncontradicted.

So, the question for Sen. Kieckhefer is: Why merely exempt schools and universities? Why not repeal the whole damned thing and save the state’s taxpayers $1 billion a year?

I emailed Kieckhefer and his secretary with this question and got no reply.

But I suspect the bill may well be a stalking horse designed to get the discussion on the table for these two popular entities who are always crying poverty. Then the bill could be amended simply to read: NRS 338.02o-338.090 is hereby repealed.

It has been years since Hopkins reported on the waste caused by this law, and SB146 is about as close as we’ve gotten to some action from our lawmakers.