Backroom politics in the Kansas Legislature played a role in killing Wyandotte County’s prevailing wage ordinance, according to Unified Government lobbyist Mike Taylor.
Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill Tuesday that takes away Wyandotte County’s right to require contractors of public works projects and economic development projects to pay the prevailing wage. The law goes into effect in July.
While the new law applies statewide, very few communities actually had a prevailing wage ordinance. Kansas did away with a prevailing wage law in the mid-1990s. The bill that was signed into law yesterday was considered by some to be an anti-union measure.
Prevailing wages for skilled labor are often between $15 and $25 an hour, sometimes upwards of that, depending on the skill. Without the prevailing wage ordinance, the highest that has to be paid to workers is $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage. Should wages fall in Wyandotte County, however, skilled laborers can always try to find work in another state that has prevailing wage laws.
A conservative majority in the Kansas Legislature passed the legislation through both houses.
According to a Unified Government statement, the law attacks Wyandotte County’s successful approach to economic development, which has made the community a regional tourism and manufacturing center, while creating many good-paying jobs, and promoting small local, minority and women-owned businesses. Wyandotte County had some innovative economic development projects such as The Legends, the Sporting Club soccer stadium, the Hollywood Casino, the Sara Lee plant and the Cerner office development that were required to follow the prevailing wage ordinance.
The prevailing wage ordinance here was supported publicly by Mayor Joe Reardon in testimony, and by Mayor-elect Mark Holland and mayoral candidate Ann Murguia, who stated at a political forum that they were in favor of the UG ordinance.
Taylor represented the UG, which supported requiring firms to pay the prevailing wage when they are working on economic development and public works projects in Wyandotte County. Locally, the UG Commission has previously stated it supports local control of this issue. Taylor told legislators that Wyandotte County has been very successful at economic development. In exchange for tax breaks for development companies, Wyandotte County has required prevailing wages that help provide jobs for residents who are paying the property tax bills here.
In a memo titled “How Things Work,” Taylor outlined some backroom politics that destroyed Wyandotte County’s prevailing wage ordinance. One group at the House committee level had opposed just the paid vacation and sick leave mandates on restaurants. Taylor agreed to a deal in the House to stop opposing the bill if the prevailing wage ban was removed, and the deal moved forward in committee with that language struck.
But, according to Taylor, in the other legislative body, another lobbyist quietly worked to put the prevailing wage ban back into the bill. Taylor kept to the deal and did not testify in the Senate against it, but the Senate added the prevailing wage ban into it, on a motion from Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood, Taylor stated. According to Taylor, Senate President Susan Wagle stated that it was added to give the Senate some leverage with the House when the bill went to conference committee.
“What wasn’t said is that the amendment had secretly been shopped to committee members by Riley Scott, a lobbyist working for Crossland Construction, a firm which opposes prevailing wage requirements. What also wasn’t said is that Riley Scott is Susan Wagle’s son-in-law,” Taylor wrote in his memo.
Taylor went on to point out that the construction firm is a major contributor to Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, a statewide organization opposing prevailing wage legislation. “Over the course of the last 10 years Crossland Construction has received close to $200 million in government contracts,” Taylor stated.