prevailing-wage-150x150-2707838The state Senate’s ruling majority coalition hopes state budget talks will include a “discussion about whether the definition of public work should be updated”—shorthand for whether costly union compensation packages should be imposed on a much larger number of projects subsidized directly or indirectly by taxpayers.

The request to talk about the issue, found on page 92 of the Senate’s budget resolution, marks the second time in two years that Senate Republicans and their Independent Democratic Conference partners have sent up this particular flare in the run-up to budget negotiations.

New York’s building trade unions have sought to expand the “public works” designation—and, with it, the union “prevailing wage” mandate—to a wide range of private construction projects receiving nearly any public subsidy from the state or local governments, including agencies such as Industrial Development Authorities (IDAs).  

As interpreted by the state Labor Department, the prevailing wage law imposes both union hourly pay levels and hyper-expensive benefits on public works projects contracted directly by government, driving up costs by a minimum of 13 percent in parts of upstate to 25 percent in New York City. The law is supposed to apply the compensation levels set by any union contract that covers at least 30 percent of the workers in a given region—a threshold that, federal statistics indicate, is almost certainly not met for most construction occupations outside New York City, or for some within the city as well.

Legislation expanding the definition of public work last year passed the state Assembly but was not voted on in the state Senate, although a Senate version of the proposal has been sponsored by Sen. Terrence Murphy (R-Westchester).

Although it’s clearly not a budget issue, the Senate’s “discussion” language signals that coalition leaders want to raise expansion of prevailing wage in their closed-door budget talks—effectively expanding the cloak of secrecy that surrounds the law’s legally questionable application by the Labor Department, which won’t reveal how it calculates the wage.

Expanding prevailing wage would be a huge favor to building trade unions, which is is why senators are again suggesting a secretive “discussion” of the issue in (election-year) budget talks.

If the Senate is really interested in exploring this issue on the merits, why haven’t they scheduled a public hearing on the issue?

About the Author

Ken Girardin

Ken Girardin is the Empire Center’s Director of Strategic Initiatives.

Read more by Ken Girardin

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The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.