FRANKFORT, KY (AP) Despite protests by union workers and a lack of support from Democratic legislators, Gov. Ernie Fletcher made reducing hourly wages for blue-collar tradesmen employed on public construction projects a key component of his proposed budget for the next two years.
In his budget address on Jan. 17, Fletcher also proposed initiatives that would increase teacher salaries, pay for medical care for children and senior citizens, deal with severe prison overcrowding and build arenas in Lexington and Louisville.
The proposal to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law, though of little financial consequence in the approximately $18-billion budget, could be a sticking point in later budget negotiations between Fletcher’s Republican administration and the Democrat-controlled House.
House Speaker Jody Richards has said the proposal will not pass.
The state operated without a budget in 2004 because of a standoff between Fletcher and the House over modifications to Kentucky’s tax code.
“I believe the time for prevailing wage laws has come and gone,” the governor said. “It makes every school building more expensive.”
Fletcher said prevailing wage laws pushed up construction costs at Belfry High School in Pike County from $18 million to $32 million.
Repealing the prevailing wage law, he said, would save the state $60 million during the next two years.
Fletcher was booed loudly by hundreds of protesting union workers as he walked with his wife toward the House chamber to deliver his budget address.
Inside the House chamber, the hundreds of protesters who filled the state Capitol halls were audible during Fletcher’s speech.
Fletcher also was booed during his State of the Commonwealth speech, when he said he supported repealing the state’s prevailing wage law and a “right to work” plan that would open union shops to nonunion workers.
More than 500 blue-collar workers came to the Capitol, filling the Rotunda and spilling onto the grounds outside, to oppose both measures.
Fletcher said the “right to work” plan was not included in the budget, though he said passage of separate legislation would generate an additional $20 million in General Fund revenue that could be spent on education.
He said it also would create 22,000 additional jobs over the next two years.
“I understand that this may be a difficult issue for some of you, but we cannot live in the past,” Fletcher said.
House Speaker Jody Richards said he didn’t believe either plan would pass the legislature. Richards said Fletcher’s plan would be “very, very divisive” among lawmakers.
“The governor made such a point to say he wants us all to work together — the House and Senate to work together and him — and yet throws in those kinds of things that he knows are just very divisive. And I don’t think either house can pass either one,” Richards said.
Larry Butcher, a construction worker from Paintsville, KY, said such a law would severely cut the family budgets for union employees across the state.
He said average wages of $25 an hour could be cut in half if Fletcher’s prevailing wage initiative passes.
“I probably would work for that, but I sure would hate to,” Butcher said. “I don’t think it’s fair.”
Still, Senate Minority Leader Ed Worley, D-Richmond, said he did not believe the issues would prohibit lawmakers from later agreement on a state budget.
“I don’t think that it’s a roadblock,” Worley told reporters after the speech. “I think the members of the House and the Senate both will negotiate that, and I think that we’ll overcome that issue.”
The Fletcher administration wanted to appropriate $937.7 million for construction projects over the next two years.
Without repealing the prevailing wage law, some projects presumably would have to be cut because state Budget Director Brad Cowgill said the cost would grow to $970 million.
That’s because state law generally requires contractors to pay union scale to tradesmen working on projects paid for with public funds.
Construction projects proposed by the Fletcher administration include $75 million to help pay for a $349 million arena in downtown Louisville, $35 million for building a new arena at Lexington’s Kentucky Horse Park, $130 million for an expansion at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, $65.9 million for a research center at the University of Louisville and $55 million for buildings at community and technical colleges in Covington, London and Paducah.