Prevailing wage: Prevailing nonsense

By Jim Waters - Bluegrass Beacon

As a lifelong Cincinnati Reds fan, I’m conflicted.

It’s great that former Reds player Ken Griffey Jr. was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame; 99.3 percent of the 440 ballots contained his name.

Still, how could three of America’s elite baseball writers leave this former superstar – who hit the sixth-most home runs in history – off of their measly little ballots altogether, especially when doing so means Griffey doesn’t become the first player ever with a 100 percent Hall of Fame vote?

Then again, how can too many of our politicians in Frankfort – who also are supposed to be in the know – refuse to budge on a policy that unnecessarily adds millions of dollars to the cost of renovating and building public schools?

How can they support a policy known as “prevailing wage,” which really represents “prevailing nonsense” by forcing contractors to pay union-like wages for jobs labeled “water boy” and “general laborer?”

Such economic tomfoolery adds more than $125 million annually to the cost of public buildings in Kentucky. How many schools would that build or repair?

If a private company wants to go bankrupt by paying a “water boy” an hourly base rate of $21.70 plus $11.83 worth of fringe benefits – as required for some Kentucky’s public projects, including those in Breckinridge and Grayson counties per prevailing-wage rates issued in the fall by the state Labor Cabinet – let them do so without the promise or potential of a bailout.

The fact that labor unions insist on forcing taxpayers to shovel $33.53 “for someone to carry water to the guys on a hot day,” as Codell Construction project manager Norm Leigh puts it, offers clues about why union workers now build only about 11 percent of Kentucky’s private-sector construction projects.

Leigh, whose been in the construction industry – mostly on public projects – for nearly four decades, says that when you add items like workers’ compensation, bonding requirements, taxes and overhead, “the state is paying $50.78 for a water boy.”

No wonder it’s hard even for the generally big-spending bureaucrats running most of our public schools to cling to this failing policy.

Former Kentucky Association of Schools Superintendent Wilson Sears told CNHI’s Ronnie Ellis before he retired in December 2014 that administrators believe the law adds 17 percent to 20 percent to the cost of projects.

Even contractors see the policy’s fallacy.

“It’s a waste because they could get 15 percent more for their bucks and more for their kids,” Leigh said. “It’s money that could be used to put more Wi-Fi in or build some bleachers.”

Senate leaders made sure the issue will get a significant amount of attention this year by making eliminating prevailing wage on school-construction projects one of their 13 priorities during the General Assembly session.

Expect many of the politicians in Frankfort, who owe their political success to labor-union bosses, who, in turn, owe their power and wealth to policies giving them almost unfettered access to taxpayer dollars that should be going to teachers and kids, to offer the same sappy, but stubborn, opposition we’ve heard before.

Count on Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, to propagate recycled political puffery similar to last year’s debate on the Senate floor during which he claimed that eliminating prevailing wage would produce inferior school buildings.

“I can honestly say, Mr. President, that I don’t want to have to worry about the quality of the school that my child goes to being called into question by the quality of the labor,” he mushed.


How does paying a water boy $50 an hour – particularly in this day of Aquafina and Dasani – make schools safer or better?

Besides, Leigh asks: “When’s the last time you heard about a building falling down because union workers didn’t build it?”

At least since we witnessed a player like Griffey.

By Jim Waters

Bluegrass Beacon

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at Read previously published columns at

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at Read previously published columns at

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