Senate remembers - finally - that Madison is not Washington

By MIKE NICHOLS | July 8, 2015

The Wisconsin state Senate declared by the slimmest of margins Tuesday that Wisconsin really is a state – not just another part of the federal machinery.

Oddly enough, this has been in doubt of late.

Some folks in Wisconsin believe that we are simply another part of the federal government and should march in lockstep. Others insist there have long been some key ways Madison differs from Washington, D.C. – but have been trying their damnedest to eliminate them.

Witness, for example, the arguments that came to a head in the Senate Tuesday over prevailing wage and the Wisconsin open records law.

After months of anguished hand-wringing, the Senate voted 17-16 to repeal Wisconsin’s prevailing wage laws for local governments – antiquated, costly relics of the 1930s that force private contractors to pay exorbitant, government-mandated wages to their employees on many public projects.

The more you examine the negative impacts of prevailing wage laws, the more you ask yourself just how they ever got on the books in the first place. The answer: Wisconsin was simply following the federal government’s lead. The federal prevailing wage act, better known as the Davis-Bacon Act, was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover in March 1931. Wisconsin actually has three different prevailing wage laws – sometimes called “Little Davis-Bacons.” Two of the statutes became law in June 1931 during the administration of Gov. Philip La Follette. A third was signed into law by Gov. Albert Schmedeman in May 1933.

The Senate action Tuesday to remove locally funded projects from prevailing wage mandates is far from perfect. (The Assembly approved the budget 52-46 early Thursday.) Even if Gov. Scott Walker ends up supporting the legislative action – and that appears likely at this point – state projects (as opposed to strictly local ones) still will be subject to the laws. And even if Wisconsin’s prevailing wage laws were eradicated completely, both state-level and local-level projects funded with federal money still would be subject to Davis-Bacon.

Until Davis-Bacon is eliminated, tax dollars will continue to be wasted in both Wisconsin and elsewhere because of government-mandated wage levels that are much higher than what many contractors can and do pay on privately funded projects.

There’s no way Davis-Bacon is going away soon.

“There is discussion of elimination of Davis-Bacon in almost every session of Congress,” said John Mielke, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, one of the groups taking the lead in arguing for prevailing wage reform here. “But that is not going to happen anywhere in the near future in the current dynamic we are in.”

That’s unfortunate, but at least Wisconsin – over 80 years after linking arms with the federal government – finally has decided to go its own way.

Similarly, the state Senate voted unanimously Tuesday to shoot down a surprise, ill-conceived, last-minute Joint Finance Committee proposal to gut the state’s open records law so that “deliberative materials” showing how and why laws are made – things such as drafting records for bills and communications between government employees – would no longer be accessible to voters or taxpayers or watchdog groups or, for that matter, any other citizen. Widely and correctly seen as an assault on open government, the proposal caused virtually everyone in the state not working in the Capitol to incredulously  wonder what our clandestine leaders could possibly have been thinking.

The answer: They were thinking they wanted to be just like their federal counterparts.

The federal Freedom of Information Act includes a “deliberative process privilege” that limits public access to records of discussions of proposed federal public policies, allows federal elected officials and their staff to shield motives for legislation and, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, protects the federal government “against public confusion that might result from disclosure of reasons and rationales that were not in fact ultimately the grounds for an agency’s action.”

In other words, the folks in Washington think we easily confused, thick-headed yokels out here in the hinterlands are stupid.

It appeared our elected officials in Wisconsin thought the same thing for a time there.

Thankfully – here in Wisconsin – they came to their senses. Madison on Tuesday proved it is not like Washington.

Washington, on the other hand, would benefit from being a little more like Madison. 

Mike Nichols is president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

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