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October 21, 2014

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CARSON CITY:

Critics of bill on stimulus see labor’s fingerprints

Assembly sponsor says it’s a first draft whose rules for contractors will be eased

Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson’s bill was merely intended to make sure that Nevada’s share of the federal stimulus ends up employing Nevadans.

Somehow it ended up being much more.

Atkinson introduced AB175 during Tuesday morning’s Assembly Government Affairs meeting, testifying it would assure the $200 million for transportation led to in-state hiring. It would require that companies bidding on state contracts have “a demonstrable policy of providing, to the extent practicable, the first opportunity of employment to qualified local workers.”

But the bill, co-sponsored by 21 fellow Democratic Assembly members, didn’t stop there. It also required that employees on the projects receive a “living wage,” employer-paid health insurance, a pension plan and state-approved training.

The proposal was, according to many lobbyists and lawmakers, a wish list of the construction unions, giving union employers a leg up over nonunion shops in winning those bids.

Atkinson said that was unintended. After spending the weekend fielding angry calls from contractors, he said the bill was a first draft, the product of a rushed effort late last week to get the rules in place before the state spends the stimulus money.

“We were all, including legal staff, in a rush,” he said. “We wanted to create jobs for Nevadans. It came out not exactly the way we intended.”

Typically, staffers can take weeks preparing a bill, he said. But given the urgency of the economic stimulus, and the requirement that the state spend money within 120 days, the bill was pushed forward.

Some wondered how unintentional its provisions were.

With Democrats in control of both houses and labor unions assisting heavily in Democratic campaigns, some believe labor unions will have added clout this session, which they would likely use to encourage contractors with government agencies and renewable energy projects that qualify for tax incentives to use union labor.

Atkinson said he wrote the bill and did not discuss it with labor union representatives before introducing it.

Regardless of its authorship, Danny Thompson, the powerful head of the Nevada AFL-CIO, testified he would like to see the bill pass as introduced.

“I don’t think people understand how dire things are in Nevada,” he told lawmakers. “There aren’t any jobs out there.”

Thompson then stood and left the table before legislators could ask him questions, a violation of protocol.

Dave Gish, owner of RFI, which installs communications and security systems, said: “It’s really exclusionary the way it’s written.”

Asked whether it appeared to be written to benefit unions, Gish said: “The way it’s written now, it does.”

Atkinson began his testimony by saying the bill would change.

“Livable wage,” which wasn’t defined in the bill, would be taken out, he said. The state already has a law requiring that a “prevailing wage” be paid on taxpayer-funded projects.

The provision requiring employer-paid health insurance for employees and their dependents would likely be tweaked to allow some employee contributions to the health insurance. The pension requirement might be taken out.

Despite hearing that changes will be made, contractors and developers came forward to criticize it, much to Atkinson’s chagrin.

The assemblyman noted that nonunion employers testified that they already provide their employees with health benefits and sometimes pensions. “There are plenty of nonunion employers that do what the bill is asking,” Atkinson said.

Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, chairwoman of the government affairs committee, said she wants those who get the contracts to provide health care so University Medical Center won’t continue to be burdened caring for uninsured patients.

“It’s a work in progress,” she said.

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