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Republicans Introduce Bill to Shift Federal Road Funds

The move that would exempt local projects from federal prevailing wage requirements.

Tue December 22, 2015 - Midwest Edition

MADISON, Wis. (AP) Republican legislators have created a bill that would shift federal road-building dollars from local work to state projects, a move that would exempt local projects from federal prevailing wage requirements.

Sen. Duey Stroebel and Rep. Rob Brooks’ bill would move $47 million in federal funding away from local projects and pour it into state projects such as freeway rehabilitation. The measure would shift a corresponding amount of state dollars away from state projects to cover local work.

The measure essentially swaps federal funding for state funding on local projects, Stroebel said in a news release. The move would keep local work from being subject to what he called burdensome federal regulations, increasing efficiency and saving the state money. He made no specific mention of avoiding the prevailing wage, which requires minimum salaries for workers on government-funded construction projects, in the release.

If federal dollars leave a project, the federal prevailing wage requirement would go with them, Stroebel acknowledged during a telephone interview with The Associated Press. But he insisted the bill doesn’t specifically target the prevailing wage. The measure is designed to streamline the construction process, he said.

“The big savings are all about the regulatory issues,’’ he said. “This is about lowering delivery costs as a whole.’’

The proposal hasn’t yet been introduced as a formal bill and doesn’t have any fiscal estimates attached to it. A state Transportation Department spokeswoman didn’t respond to an email Nov. 27 inquiring about whether the agency has completed any calculations on potential savings the bill might create.

Wisconsin had required local and state government units to pay a wage calculated by the state Department of Workforce Development to laborers, mechanics and truck drivers who work on public projects. But Republican legislators erased the law in the state budget this summer, saying it inflates project costs and amounts to an unfunded mandate. Stroebel, R-Saukville, refused to vote for the budget until GOP leaders included the repeal in the spending plan.

A separate federal law, however, requires a minimum wage for workers on federally funded or federally assisted construction projects. If legislators block the flow of federal dollars to local highway work, the state wouldn’t have to pay that wage.

A legislative task force created in 2011 to examine transportation needs recommended moving federal funds out of local projects, saying such a change would reduce oversight and allow projects to be built faster and cheaper. The task force didn’t offer any hard numbers.

The Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, which represents road builders, opposes the bill, executive director Pat Goss said. Eliminating the federal prevailing wage would make it harder to recruit and retain skilled workers, he said. He doubts the bill would generate substantial savings, noting state projects would still have to abide by federal standards and regulations and local projects would have to follow the state’s regulations.

Daniel Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin Highways Association, which works to develop county highway standards and recommends changes in highway policies, didn’t return a voicemail on Nov. 27.

He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, however, that his association has been pushing to change how federal funding is allocated, insisting the swap would save money on engineering and administrative costs.

The bill’s prospects are unclear. The Senate and Assembly aren’t expected to reconvene for floor votes until at least mid-January. A spokeswoman of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald didn’t respond to an email Nov. 27, and a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said she couldn’t immediately comment.

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