The Missouri House took a key first step Tuesday toward repealing the state's "prevailing wage" requirement for public construction projects, the latest in a series of moves by Republican-controlled states to limit union powers.
The legislation, which won initial House approval by a 93-60 vote, would undo a longtime Missouri law that requires cities, school districts and other governmental entities to pay more than the state's standard minimum wage for construction and maintenance work on such things as roads, bridges and buildings.
Missouri is one of 29 states with such laws, which are modeled after a U.S. law applying to federal public works projects. But the local laws have been falling as Republicans have taken full control of more state legislatures and governorships.
Kentucky repealed its prevailing wage law in January, West Virginia did so last year, and Indiana did likewise in 2015.
Republican Gov. Eric Greitens, who succeeded Democrat Jay Nixon in January, called for a prevailing-wage-law repeal earlier this year in his first speech to the GOP-dominated Legislature. Greitens had said the law "drives up the cost of important construction work."
"All we're trying to do is be better stewards of taxpayer money," sponsoring Rep. Warren Love, a Republican from the rural western Missouri town of Osceola, said during Tuesday's debate.
Missouri's prevailing wages are set on a county-by-county basis for each type of work involved in a project.
For example, the prevailing wage for carpenters is about $25 an hour for public works projects Boone County, which is home to the University of Missouri.
But carpenters are due about $37 an hour in the home counties of St. Louis and Kansas City. By contrast, the state's general minimum wage is $7.70 an hour.
The wage requirements are determined based on voluntary wage surveys submitted by contractors working in each county, which could be predominantly either union or non-union shops. When no wages are reported to the state, the union rate for that trade is used.
Though the House vote was divided largely on partisan lines, 19 Republicans joined Democrats in opposition to the wage-law repeal. One Democrat voted for it.
State Rep. Kevin Engler called the legislation an "anti-economic development bill" that allows non-union workers from elsewhere to undercut Missouri laborers.
"This bill will create some jobs, but they will be created from out of state by people who will come in and build schools and hospitals," said Engler, a Republican from the eastern Missouri town of Farmington.
A political action committee financed in the past by the carpenters union has been running TV ads urging people to call Greitens and tell him to protect the prevailing wage. The ads assert repealing the law would "destroy" families.
Greitens already has signed a separate bill making Missouri a right-to-work state in which mandatory union fees will be prohibited in new workplace contracts starting on Aug. 28. Similar right-to-work laws have been enacted in recent years under Republican control in Kentucky, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan.
Missouri and other states also have been pursuing other bills targeting unions, including ones requiring them to get annual authorization from members in order to deduct dues from paychecks.
A second House vote is needed to send the Missouri prevailing-wage repeal to the Senate.