CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislation to make West Virginia a “right-to-work” state (Senate Bill 1) and to repeal the state’s 81-year-old Prevailing Wage Act (House Bill 4005) remained in the spotlight in the third week of the 2016 legislative session.
Meanwhile, new bills to allow people to conceal-carry handguns without state permits (HB4145), and to allow exemptions to state civil rights protections on religious grounds (HB4012) were the subjects of public hearings.
The House of Delegates Wednesday passed the prevailing wage repeal bill on a 55-44 vote, after more than 2 ½ hours of intense debate.
Proponents of repeal contend the current wage rates for construction work on major state-funded projects – which were revised under a law passed last year – continue to be artificially inflated, benefiting workers at the expense of taxpayers.
“Today, you will decide whether to stand with the taxpayers, or with the union bosses,” Delegate Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, told delegates before the vote.
Opponents, however, noted that most local building contractors strongly support the current system, which assures they can hire quality workers, and not get underbid by out-of-state contractors using low-paid labor.
“The most important thing we can do is assure the public gets an excellent product,” said Delegate Doug Reynolds, D-Cabell. A building contractor himself, Reynolds said that in construction, the cheapest option is rarely the best option.
Meanwhile, Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, said debate over prevailing wage was distracting the Legislature from addressing the real problems facing the state, including avoiding $120 million of benefits cuts for public school and state employees insured by the Public Employees Insurance Agency, as well as addressing budget deficits in excess of $350 million in the current and upcoming 2016-17 state budgets.
“The point is, we need to be dealing with the problems we have, not the problems you want to create because you don’t like unions,” she told the House majority.
While previous votes on prevailing wage and on the companion right-to-work bill had been mostly along party lines, eight Republicans joined the 36 House Democrats in voting against the bill. It is now awaiting consideration in the Senate Government Organization Committee.
The Senate previously passed the right-to-work bill on a 17-16 vote. It advanced from the House Judiciary Committee Friday, and will be up for a House vote next week.
A day earlier, the committee conducted a public hearing on the bill, which would give employees in union shops the ability to opt out of paying union dues.
Opponents said the bill said it, like the prevailing wage repeal, is designed to weaken unions and drive down wages in the state.
Sterling Ball, with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, quoted from a speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave in 1961 opposing right-to-work: “It’s purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining. Wherever these laws are passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer, and there are no civil rights.”
Supporters said right-to-work would be an economic development tool, contending that many companies won’t consider locating in states that don’t have right-to-work laws.
“We need to give our economic development folks the tools that they need to go out and get the things that this state needs the most, and that is jobs,” said Parween Mascari, with the state Chamber of Commerce.
Also Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee heard from supporters and opponents of a bill called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The bill would provide exemptions to state civil rights laws for persons exercising their religious beliefs. Similar bills have been introduced in several states in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriages.
Supporters say they should not be forced by law to take actions that are against their religious faith, while opponents say it could permit discrimination against the LGBT community, women, and other groups.
Several noted that a similar law enacted in Indiana in 2015 resulted in boycotts and cancellations costing the state about $60 million in lost convention and tourism business before the law was modified later that year.
A day earlier, the Judiciary Committee also had a public hearing on legislation to allow persons to conceal carry handguns without having to obtain state permits.
Proponents of the bill said the current law, with a $100 fee for a five-year permit and required background checks and gun safety training, amounts to an unreasonable tax on their right to bear arms.
“This bill is about sheriffs taking our rights from us and selling them back to us,” said Keith Morgan, president of the West Virginia Citizens Defense League.
Opponents of the bill cited polls showing overwhelming support for keeping the current conceal carry requirements.
“Obviously, HB4145 does not represent the will of most West Virginians,” said Dee Price Childers, with the state chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “West Virginia moms urge our delegates not to put our families in harm’s way by allowing untrained persons to carry concealed loaded weapons in our communities.”
House Judiciary advanced the bill to the full House later that day on a 17-6 vote.
A similar bill passed the Legislature by wide margins in both houses last year, but was vetoed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, citing “overwhelming opposition” from law enforcement agencies statewide.
Phil Kabler is a Statehouse reporter/columnist for The Charleston Gazette and a contributing columnist to the West Virginia Press Association. He can be followed on Twitter at @PhilKabler.