The Republican-led Missouri House gave first-round approval Wednesday to a bill that would allow school districts to opt out of paying the state's wage requirement for public construction projects.
The measure would let districts in rural counties forgo the wage requirement for any new construction projects or school maintenance. The "prevailing wage" is calculated annually from voluntary wage surveys by Missouri companies submitted to the state's labor department.
Republicans from rural areas want to change the wage requirement because, they said, school districts can't afford the rate, which is traditionally higher than the state's minimum wage.
"This legislation is probably one of the best pieces of legislation we could pass this year and does more for schools than anything else," said sponsoring Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany, before the House voted 89-59 to endorse his bill.
House Democrats were not optimistic. They opposed the bill over concerns that eliminating the prevailing wage would cause school districts to hire out-of-state contractors for cheaper labor.
Minority Leader Jacob Hummel said the prevailing wage ensures that all bidders are on a level playing field and prevents Missouri contractors from being undercut by migrant labor. Hummel, D-St. Louis, called Guernsey's measure the "No Foreign Worker Left Behind Act" and said it would lower the standard of living in the state, a charge disputed by supporters.
"We are not lowering standard of living, because there isn't the work to begin with," said Rep. Lyndall Fraker, R-Marshfield, who voted in favor of the bill.
The measure would only apply to smaller counties with rural school districts. Larger counties with a charter form of government would not be free to ignore the prevailing wage for school projects. School districts covered under the legislation could also still choose to pay the state's wage requirement.
Supporters and opponents agreed the current prevailing wage requirement is flawed because not all companies doing construction work report their wages. This distorts the prevailing wage by not accurately reflecting the wage at which work is being performed in counties. Supporters of changing or eliminating the prevailing wage argue this occurrence causes the historically higher wages paid to union workers to be used as the prevailing wage instead of the "real" wages paid by private contractors, since union work is reported at a higher rate.
Republicans in the House and Senate have sought to change the prevailing wage in recent years. Last year, the Senate unsuccessfully tried to eliminate the wage requirement for disaster areas after the deadly Joplin tornado in 2011. Under Guernsey's bill, the Joplin school district would be able to rebuild with a lower wage requirement.
While the House was approving the prevailing wage bill, the Senate was gridlocked over a measure barring public employee unions from withholding dues out of member's paychecks. Both measures are opposed by Democratic lawmakers and organized labor.
The House's prevailing wage measure needs one more affirmative vote before moving to the Senate.