Sometimes, evidence proves seemingly logical arguments and analyses wrong.
I used to be a critic of prevailing wage laws–I was persuaded that such laws interfered with the market for construction services and added unnecessary costs to the public projects financed with taxpayer dollars. I agreed with those who argued for repeal of such laws by contending that if we did away with prevailing wage, taxpayers could save hundreds of millions of dollars on public projects, because non-union contractors who didn’t pay prevailing wage would begin bidding on those jobs, generating more competition.
Unfortunately, the evidence doesn’t support that theory, logical as it seemed.
In 2017, the Wisconsin state Legislature repealed prevailing wage. The state’s prevailing wage laws established local market-based minimum wages on the construction of schools, roads and other taxpayer-funded projects. It ensured that contractors were paying their workers fair market wages while also investing in training and apprenticeship programs that ensure the state has a stable supply of skilled craft workers to perform dangerous and demanding jobs.
Evidently, available peer-reviewed research as well as an analysis from Wisconsin’s non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau warned at the time that there was no conclusive evidence to support the claims being made by proponents of repeal. However, the state’s lawmakers ignored the nay-sayers, and voted for repeal on a largely party line vote.
In early October of this year, Dr. Kevin Duncan, Professor of Economics at Colorado State University –Pueblo published a study of the results. It was the first study that examined how the claims made by Wisconsin repeal proponents stacked up against actual economic data. It wasn’t pretty.
Here are just a few of the topline findings.
Repeal has produced a 6% wage cut for skilled construction workers (about $3,000 per year, on average) and a 4% drop in construction health insurance coverage.
Repeal has led to a 60% increase in public projects going to out-of-state contractors.
Apprenticeship completion in Wisconsin is lagging neighboring states with prevailing wage laws.
Bid competition on Wisconsin Department of Transportation projects has decreased by 16%.
There have been no project savings. In fact, the per-mile cost of highway resurfacing projects has actually gone up slightly, as have “cost overruns” on road construction projects.
The obvious question is: why? And the not-so-obvious answer is a variant of what I used to tell my students about real-life policy: it’s more complicated than it looks!
The issue boils down to skill levels. When governments and companies invest in higher-skilled workers, the higher quality of the work, higher levels of productivity and better safety metrics combine to minimize waste and avoid costly mistakes.
More highly skilled workforces also experience lower employee turnover, which reduces costs to contractors.
But repeal imposes other costs that don’t show up in project bids. For example, when the wages are slashed, it means more workers are forced to rely on Medicaid, food stamps and other government assistance programs to support their families. Those costs are borne by taxpayers…. And, when policy is distorted to advantage lower-skilled workers from out-of-town, it also means the benefits of job creation and consumer spending that would otherwise be stimulating Wisconsin’s economy are now going to other states.
Wisconsin was not the only state that repealed its prevailing wage law. Indiana did so several years ago, and West Virginia, Michigan, Kentucky and Arkansas all did the same thing within the past decade.
Interestingly, according to the linked newspaper report, the Assistant Republican Leader in the Indiana House of Representatives (the story did not further identify him) “famously told a Wisconsin audience in 2017 that repeal ‘hasn’t saved us a penny.’ And study after study has shown him to be right.”
The Midwest Economic Policy Institute found that after repeal of the common wage, “Hoosiers working in the construction industry are earning less than they were before, with no meaningful cost savings for Indiana taxpayers.”
Consider this example number umpty-zillion that public policy should be based on evidence rather than ideology….