Wisconsin Senate Republicans approved a partial repeal of the state's prevailing wage laws on Tuesday, as an amendment to the state budget.
The proposal passed narrowly, on a 17-16 vote. Sens. Rick Gudex, R-Fond du Lac, and Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, were the only two Republicans to join Democrats in voting against the proposal.
The proposal, introduced by Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, would repeal prevailing wage requirements for local governments and require the federal prevailing wage — rather than one set by the state — to be used for state-funded projects. The changes are set to take effect in January 2017 in order to give contractors time to prepare.
Prevailing wage laws set minimum pay requirements for construction workers on most public projects.
Critics of the prevailing wage say the requirement over-inflates the costs of publicly funded projects at the expense of taxpayers. Supporters argue that repealing the prevailing wage would result in lower wages, ultimately harming the middle class and driving skilled workers away from Wisconsin.
It's unclear how the proposal will fare in the Assembly, but Lasee was optimistic about its chances and said the Senate vote will put pressure on the other chamber to act.
"Assembly leadership had been saying that we were the weaker house, that we wouldn’t be able to pass this reform or any real meaningful reform. They offered a much weaker package, but we are able to pass this and I think we’ll see that today," Lasee told reporters before the vote.
Lasee said he thinks his plan offers a "strong compromise."
"It's a good reform package," he said. "It moves the ball forward and I think it's going to have real benefit to property taxpayers and to small business owners."
Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, who worked with Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, on a proposal to fully repeal the prevailing wage requirements, agreed.
"This is an important reform, and I'm very proud to be a part of this," Vukmir said. "I would put this on the scale of Act 10 (Gov. Scott Walker's legislation which significantly curbed collective bargaining rights for most public employees)."
Democrats argued that the changes will harm the middle class and drive down wages.
Noting that the budget would also replace all statutory language regarding the state's "living wage" with "minimum wage," Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton said, "I don't know what the hell we have against wages."
"The majority party always talks about how nice it would be for Wisconsin workers to have higher wages, then they implement policies so nobody has to pay anybody higher wages," said Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona.
But Republican senators like Sens. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, and Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said they've talked with contractors in their districts who want the changes. Vukmir said local government officials in her district are supportive of the changes, as well.
Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Cedarburg, said the amendment provides a "tool for all local units of government to more efficiently allocate taxpayer resources."
"I did not come here to make a bad policy less bad," Stroebel said. "I came here to stand up for taxpayers and advance policies that are good for the state of Wisconsin."