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Will Indiana have the courage to end charade of 'common wage' law?

Bill Bean
Bill Bean
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press

Vague statute wastes time, money, encourages decisions for all the wrong reasons

Saturday, May 18, 2013 12:01 am
It took Bill Bean just one meeting to realize that the system he had been appointed to enforce deserves to be repealed instead. So Bean, a successful commercial real estate broker and developer who wields considerable clout among Republican bigwigs, has set in motion wheels he hopes will grind the state's cynical “common wage” law to a well-deserved halt.

“The intent was to guarantee (construction) workers a livable wage, but we have that now. The statute has outlived its usefulness. It's all political,” said Bean, who with fellow Republican developer Zohrab Tazian last month was appointed to the Fort Wayne Community Schools committee that on Tuesday established the minimum construction wages on the forthcoming $28 million renovation of Snider High School.

Just three months ago, the committee voted 3-2 to adopt union-level wages proposed by the AFL-CIO on the first $23.7 million in projects funded through a $119 capital improvement program approved by voters last year, with FWCS Board appointees Jack Morris and “Mitch” Sheppard – both Democrats — siding with the majority. But this week, after hearing evidence almost identical to that offered in February, the newly reconstituted board by a 4-1 vote reached the opposite conclusion, adopting lower non-union wages for the Snider project.

It was all perfectly legal, predictable and perhaps even preordained – despite the hour-long testimonial charade that preceded this week's vote. Unfortunately, this was no parlor game. Real tax dollars were at stake, and so was the public's confidence in those who make and administer the law.

The common-wage law requires most governments beginning construction projects worth more than $350,000 to establish minimum wages. The five-member committees making the decision are normally offered two choices: the union scale and the and none-union scale, which according to the Associated Builders and Contractors can cut costs by between 15 and 30 percent.

Whether that claim is accurate really isn't the point. In fact, as Bean points out, committee members aren't even supposed to consider it. They simply are supposed to determine the most commonly paid wage in a given community for a given job solely on the basis of information provided by the AFL-CIO and ABC.

But because the law doesn't define “common,” the two sides make vastly different arguments, both of which have been upheld in court. The unions say collective bargaining agreements set the wage because they make certain workers doing the same job get the same pay. The ABC insists its wages are most common because only 1,700 of Allen County's construction workers belong to unions.

“But 70 percent of what was presented (at Tuesday's meeting) was irrelevant (to the decision),” said Bean, noting that the union stressed its training programs, bonding capability and other perceived plusses while the ABC touted potential savings to taxpayers.

In the end, Bean said, he was swayed by the ABC's definition of “common.” And so, for the next three months, the work and Snider and any other large construction project will be bid using the lower wages.

After that, who knows? And isn't that part of the problem, too?

Ken Neumeister, a former ABC contractor who chaired Tuesday's meeting, suspects the FWCS Board appointed Bean and Tazian after taking heat for the February vote, which followed promises that the schools would be good stewards of any extra money approved by voters. I don't doubt Bean's claim that he went into the meeting with an open mind, but I do suspect the people who appointed him expected him to vote as he did.

The simple truth is that, in most cases, Republican-leaning politicians appoint people of similar beliefs to common-wage committees. Democrats do the same, with equally predicable results. But none of that spares union and ABC representatives of having to go through the motions, presenting evidence they know will have little bearing on the outcome.

Some say the law doesn't really have much affect on the price taxpayers must pay for buildings, roads and other projects. But if that's true, why have unions fought previous efforts to amend or repeal it? Why was Tuesday's meeting so contentious?

In the wake of the General Assembly's decision to make Indiana a “right to work” state two years ago, Bean knows he's asking legislators to embrace another “political hot potato.” But surely any law that allows and encourages participants to make vastly different partisan decisions under the guise of objectivity, wasting everybody's time and potentially millions of taxpayer dollars in the process, has outlived whatever usefulness it may have had.


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