An overstatement by Sauerbrey?

Writing recently about the concept of “prevailing wage,” two-time gubernatorial candidate Ellen Sauerbrey used the letter to the editor to praise her apparent choice for governor, David Craig. Here’s the letter in its entirety, as posted on Southern Maryland News Net. I received it as an e-mail under Craig’s campaign letterhead.

I want to point out a specific passage for comment, in particular the one where Sauerbrey speaks about Craig himself and attributes statements to him.

The 2014 General Assembly has passed legislation to apply the prevailing wage to additional local government projects that receive partial state funding. The prevailing wage which is essentially the union wage, artificially inflates labor costs by ab (sic) estimated 30% to 50%.

I commend Harford County Executive and Gubernatorial candidate David Craig for speaking out on the impact of the new law on his county, as well as the impact of prevailing wages on the state budget. Every local elected official concerned about getting the most value on public projects should want to let the market determine employee wages as is done in the private sector. County Executive Craig points out that the prevailing wage adds an additional $30 million cost to his county’s $300 million capital budget for school construction.

It may not surprise you that I have some familiarity with school construction. In the 1990s, thanks to a court decision, the state of Ohio went on a multi-billion dollar spending binge to construct new schools in practically every one of Ohio’s 600-plus school districts. (I spent seven years working for an architectural firm which specialized in schools, although I had left that company before the boom in school construction began.) In 1997 the state created an exemption to prevailing wage regulations for schools, and in that debate numbers similar to the 30 to 50 percent savings were bandied about by proponents of the measure eliminating prevailing wage.

Also mandated at the time, however, was a report to be delivered five years later, in 2002. In this report, the research indicated savings were more in the ten percent range. While that is a great savings to the taxpayer, it’s not the panacea proponents were anticipating when the bill was passed. Granted, with the vast volume of work going on at the time there was less incentive for low bids – perhaps an economic climate such as today’s would yield more significant savings.

While Sauerbrey uses the hyperbole of the 50 percent savings in her letter, it should be pointed out that David Craig’s statement within seems to ring true – out of $300 million, the $30 million addition seems to line up with the data from Ohio’s study.

But regardless of the actual savings, there is a philosophical argument to be made against the concept of an artificially-created “prevailing” wage, simply because it doesn’t necessarily reflect the true conditions of the actual labor market. I can completely understand the contention that projects completed under prevailing wage (more often than not by union shops) have a better quality to them, as one advantage of using union tradesmen borne out in my experience is that they are better trained, so the question is one of whether they are worth the premium. In some cases I would say yes, but I’m not sure schools are structures complex enough to justify the extra cost – certainly not to the extent of a health care facility or technology-heavy factory where fit and finish can be most important.

I also find it interesting that on the one hand Democrats tend to be for cherished union giveaways like prevailing wage, but do nothing on the other but encourage illegal aliens to come in and undercut the market for construction labor. I haven’t seen them yet this spring, but sooner or later somewhere on Delmarva there will be three or four union carpenters holding up the “shame on” banner because someone hired non-union labor most likely mainly made up of illegal aliens. And what else do those hapless guys have to do?

In a perfect world, many advocacy groups agree that the Davis-Bacon Act which spawned the concept of prevailing wage would be repealed. (At one time even the General Accounting Office argued for repeal.) There is even a bill in the House of Representatives to do the same, although no action has been taken on it since introduction. (And why not?) Eliminating the federal law may well trigger some states to do away with their own versions, although if you assume Maryland politics will remain as they’re currently composed for the next couple decades you won’t find us on that list. (As I pointed out yesterday, we threaten liberals’ existence on the government teat and they know it.)

But it should be a job for General Assembly Republicans to try and roll back this year’s changes in the next session. In the meantime, while 10 percent may not seem like a lot, imagine a ten percent cut in the state budget – it would roll our expenditures back to FY2013 levels and just about negate the need for our sales tax, which is 11% of revenue¬†according to our most recent budget. That wouldn’t be a rollback to 5%, it would be eliminating the whole enchilada to match Delaware. Or we could cut our income taxes in half.

Ten percent is a lot, even in the limited realm of state construction, and to me it’s better that the people have it than the government. In the case of the capital budget, it’s less bonding we have to pass along to our children. So let’s hope a Governor Craig would have the stiff spine to fight for such a change to prevailing wage, even if Ellen Sauerbrey was a little overly optimistic on its effects.