EDITORIAL: Nevada Democrats want taxpayers to pay more for public-works projects

During the 2015 Legislature, with Republican majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly, long-overdue legislation was proposed to address state-mandated prevailing wages on public projects. Senate Bill 119 would have exempted school and university system construction from such requirements.

Allowing contractors to provide market wages, as they do on private construction projects, stretches capital dollars and creates more jobs. Plus, if the Clark County School District did not have to pay prevailing wages on desperately needed new school construction, it could build five schools for the cost of four.

SB 119 passed and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval in early March 2015, about a month into the session. But under pressure from Democrats and their Big Labor benefactors, Republicans got weak-kneed. In the waning days of the session, the Senate amended Assembly Bill 172, undoing the exemption in SB 119. The Assembly later concurred, and Gov. Sandoval got a new bill. The wage for school and university system construction would now have to be 90 percent of the prevailing wage, and the project cost threshold on when prevailing wages must be paid for public works was $250,000.

State taxpayers immediately got a taste of exactly what that meant. As the Review-Journal’s Victor Joecks reported Friday, the Clark County School District put a project for K.O. Knudson Middle School out to bid in 2015 when there was no requirement to pay the prevailing wage. The low bid was $2.7 million. But the new law went into effect before the district awarded the contract, upping the low bid to $3.6 million — a whopping 33 percent increase.

But even this tiny taxpayer protection is too much for state Democrats, who are back in control of the Senate and Assembly for the 2017 session. They now want to return to full prevailing wage rates and seek to dial down the starting point on prevailing wage projects, from $250,000 to $100,000. That makes more projects more expensive, unless you’re doing the Democrat new math, something in which Assemblyman Chris Brooks of Las Vegas appears well schooled.

“Prevailing wage does not raise overall construction costs, since higher construction wages are usually offset by greater productivity, better technologies and other employer savings,” Assemblyman Brooks said while testifying for AB154 last week. To which we’d refer him back to the K.O. Knudson Middle School bid.

In fact, there is scant evidence that prevailing wage laws boost productivity or improve construction quality. In addition, the prevailing wage figures set by the labor commissioner are essentially wild guesses that favor union pay scales.

Democrats like to say that in education, it’s all about the children. But when it comes to building five schools for the price of four to ease crowding and enhance learning — or even a far more modest 10 percent prevailing wage adjustment — it’s not about the children at all. It’s all about the money to line the pockets of Democrats’ labor union backers, with taxpayers footing the inflated bill, of course.

Gov. Sandoval is still at the top of state government. Vetoing this bill should be a slam dunk if it ever makes it to his desk.