DECEMBER 28, 2015
FRANKFORT, Ky. – The first plank of the platform that Matt Bevin released as a longshot candidate for governor early this year is labeled: “Right to Work. Enacting Pro-Business Legislation.”
So as the Republican governor settles into office – with a shrinking Democratic majority in the Kentucky House – the outlook is better for passage of the so-called right-to-work bill that would ban union membership or payment of union dues as a condition for employment.
But some key legislators on both sides of the aisle say it’s no sure bet to pass in the 2016 session.
The outlook is similar for another bill long sought by business – and long opposed by organized labor – that would weaken the law requiring a regional prevailing wage rate be paid to workers on government construction jobs.
“The numbers are closer, but as they stand today, they’re not close enough to pass right-to-work,” said Senate Republican Leader Damon Thayer, of Georgetown. “Frankly, we need to not only take the majority in the House, but we need a very solid majority to pass some of these priority bills that we have been pushing in the Senate.”
The new Republican governor and growing Republican numbers in the legislature do, however, seem to make it certain that the Democratic priority of raising the minimum wage will again be blocked. Bevin showed on Dec. 22 exactly how much he opposes raising the minimum wage when he reversed former Gov. Steve Beshear’s order raising the minimum wage for state workers, calling it “regulatory overreach.”
Bevin’s priority is right-to-work. His platform argued that requiring workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement to pay union dues discourages businesses from locating in Kentucky and is unfair to workers.
“Right To Work legislation would help make Kentucky a more attractive place for new businesses. Not doing so puts us at a disadvantage to bordering states such as Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia and the other states in our region,” his platform said.
In recent years, right-to-work bills have sailed out of the Republican Senate, then stalled in the House Labor and Industry Committee controlled by Democrats. In 2015, the bill was given priority designation as Senate Bill 1 and passed the Senate during the session’s first week by a 24-12 vote.
Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Shively, expects the same thing will happen in 2016.
“The overwhelming majority of the caucus opposes it,” Jenkins said. “And there are a handful of pro-labor Republicans, probably five to seven, who would vote with the Democrats on that issue.”
One Republican senator, C.B. Embry Jr., of Morgantown, voted against right-to-work last year.
Jenkins said states that have enacted right-to-work see wages decline.
“It’s been a negative to the very folks that send us to Frankfort, the folks that get up and work every day,” she said. “And we have a really good business climate in Kentucky. I wonder why Matt Bevin chose to move to Kentucky if he thinks we have such a bad business climate here. Over and over we’ve been named as one of the most business-friendly states.”
Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, said, “Workforce education and training, geographic location and economic development incentives are the main factors for locating an economic development project. … The governor just announced a new foundry in Simpson County with more than 300 jobs. … And the automobile industry wouldn’t be investing billions here in Kentucky if this was such a big deal.”
But Dave Adkisson, chief executive of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said Kentucky can do better.
“Many business people use it as a litmus test for whether a state is business-friendly,” he said. “We’re convinced that there are major companies that will not even consider Kentucky for a location because we are not right-to-work. We’re convinced we’re losing several thousand jobs per year by not having that designation.”
The chamber also backs repealing prevailing wage. If opponents can’t repeal the law, supporters of repeal hope to take a smaller step like exempting school projects from the law or raising the level at which the law applies – currently projects costing more than $250,000 – to a higher dollar amount.
“Government should not be in the business of setting wages,” Thayer said. “That should be done by the marketplace. All prevailing wage does is inflate the cost to the taxpayers.”
But Jenkins said, “If you raise wages of lower income folks, the money stays in local communities, they support local businesses there. I think it’s a win for everybody … Paying for professional workers that have traditionally in Kentucky given us good products just makes a lot of sense to me.”
Londrigan said, “Look at the new Louisville bridge, built on time, on budget, by a skilled, reliable workforce. It’s a testament to what prevailing wage does.”
And although the outlook for a minimum wage increase is worse than last year, when the Republican Senate blocked it, Democrats say they will push again for phasing in an increase from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour.
“I think it will still be a high priority in the Democratic caucus,” Jenkins said. “I expect the House will pass it, and it will go over to the Senate and see no action. I wish we could have a more open discussion about it.”
Londrigan said, “Everything we know about raising the minimum wage is beneficial. People make more money, they spend more money, they’ve got more money to help the economy. … I expect the House will move it again to see what the Senate does with it. The polling shows it’s supported by the vast majority of Kentuckians.”
But Thayer said the bill has no chance to pass the Senate. “When you require a statewide minimum wage you drive up the cost of doing business for business owners. That costs jobs, it hurts employees, and drives up the cost to consumers.”
Bevin said in his executive order rolling back the higher minimum wage for state workers that “the minimum wage stifles job creation and disproportionately impacts lower skilled workers seeking entry level jobs.”
By Tom Loftus