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As Harrisburg dickers over transportation funding, will cooler heads prevail on prevailing wage? 

A minor wage rule ends up threatening a transportation bill — and the state's economic future

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During a late-October press conference designed to pressure lawmakers into passing a much-needed transportation bill, Gov. Tom Corbett held up a piece of concrete that had fallen from an ailing Beaver County bridge.

Corbett's argument, reiterated at his re-election kickoff, has been that Pennsylvania's crumbling infrastructure threatens to take down the state economy. The argument cuts across party lines: No one wants to do business in a state where cargo can't be carried over weight-restricted bridges, or roads are clogged with passengers displaced from barely functioning mass-transit systems.

But the plea to pass a transit package that could create an annual funding stream of about $2.5 billion, and which easily cleared the state Senate in June, has been muddled by a proposal from Corbett's fellow Republicans: Shrink the number of construction projects that are subject to a 1961 "prevailing-wage" law.

Under that law, employees on public construction projects over $25,000 must be paid a prevailing wage — a pay rate that essentially reflects the wages and benefits offered to the majority of workers in a given region. The exact wage is calculated by the state Department of Labor and Industry and meant to ensure that publicly funded construction projects aren't putting downward pressure on wages.

Some House Republicans have demanded that the wage requirement be eased as part of any new transit bill. Proposals have focused on lifting the exemption from prevailing-wage laws for projects from $25,000 to $100,000 — a move that would lower the wages of some workers on smaller-scale projects.

Negotiations in Harrisburg were ongoing as this issue went to press; it's not clear whether transportation funding will pass, or whether the prevailing-wage measure will be part of it. But Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House Republican caucus, says that prevailing-wage laws represent "an artificial wage barrier" that burdens taxpayers and that loosening them should "absolutely" be a requirement for passing a transit bill.

"It's a way to stretch local tax dollars," Miskin says. "It shouldn't be a partisan issue."

Democrats and many unions hate the proposal, calling it an effort to appease hard-line conservatives upset about plans to finance transportation with a gas-tax increase. "[House Republicans] acknowledged that this transportation package is a tax increase — they believe it's necessary to tie it to something else," says Bill Patton, spokesman for House Democrats. "Any effort to tear down the wages of working people is a non-starter."

Corbett has been standing in the middle, hoping to cajole lawmakers to act before next year's election cycle dims the chances of its passage. "The governor has said he wants a transportation bill on his desk," says spokesman Steve Chizmar, "and if prevailing wage is part of that, he'll sign it. We've been under-investing in our roads and bridges for decades; the risk is just too great to not do anything."

The risk isn't just to the state's economy; Corbett's own 2014 re-election bid is also at stake, says Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics & Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.

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