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Editorial: Dodging the prevailing wage bullet

The wave of progressive legislation that emerged from the Democratic-controlled State Legislature this year covered a lot of ground. Fortunately for upstate, a measure that would have handcuffed our economy was blocked by a round robin of maneuvers, objections and recriminations.

It was about expanding the state’s prevailing wage law, and it will be back.

Under the existing law, the state sets wages on public works construction projects based on union contracts in a region. The change would have extended those requirements to private ventures that receive state or local incentives, significantly increasing costs and decreasing the likelihood of construction.

But as the bill evolved in the last days of the legislative session, Cuomo pushed first to limit the projects it affected and then, most significantly, insisted on a one-year exemption on projects in New York City. That carve-out was poison to upstate lawmakers who worried about the burden on their economies. But it also disturbed New York City legislators, whose union constituents didn’t want to be excluded.

Unions blamed the governor or the Senate or both. Others blamed the Assembly. Cuomo’s office simply noted that the Legislature didn’t agree on a bill.

Some say Cuomo and the Senate worried about smacking the powerful real estate industry twice in the same session, only days after approving new regulations on landlords. But the bottom line was that it didn’t happen and, for that, upstate can be thankful.

Had the expansion happened, the cost of eligible projects in Western New York would have risen by estimated 20%, according to an analysis by the conservative-leaning Empire Center. Much of that increase was because the legislation included a mandate to match benefits, including pension fund contributions, health care coverage and workers compensation.

One school of thought is that Cuomo pushed for the exemption for New York City as a way to kill the bill. “If you pass a prevailing-wage law that actually stops construction, then you help no one,” he said on radio before the session ended. However, the governor later said that he hopes to sign a new version of the bill in the future.

If a law makes new construction projects more expensive, developers aren’t going to eat those costs. They will look for ways to pass them along to us, the taxpayers, and eventually they will do fewer projects.

That means fewer projects getting built, an unintended consequence that would harm those the bill was meant to help. Concern about a possible obstacle to the growth of affordable housing gave some progressives pause.

Failure to pass the bill gave upstate a breather, but organized labor isn’t about to give up the fight.

Grant Loomis, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s vice president of government affairs, told The News he expects the issue will be “front and center in 2020.”

The “strong desire” by many leaders in Albany and organized labor to expand prevailing wage has not gone away, he said.

Let’s hope that upstate lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continue to put the interests of our region’s economy first and stand firm against this job-killing proposal.

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