2017-09-06 / Opinions

Hiding wages on projects undercuts accountability

reprinted from The Herald-Dispatch (Huntington)

Accountability is difficult to achieve without transparency. That’s why there are laws on the books at the federal and state levels dictating that most government actions and records should be open to the public. The premise is that the public will have access to enough information to determine whether government officials in the United States are acting in the best interests of the people.

However, West Virginia’s lawmakers are being urged to curtail some of that public access to information in relation to public projects made possible by taxpayers’ money. That would be a wrong step to take.

The specific issue has to do with a proposal to make secret how much workers are paid when they are working on publicly funded projects in the state. Currently, the West Virginia Jobs Act requires that employers on such projects provide that information to the state, as well as the workers’ places of residence and their occupations. Because of those reporting requirements, the wages, place of residence and occupation are public record.

A bill to make the wage information secret was passed in the Senate during this year’s regular legislative session; it failed to make it through the House of Delegates. But the proposed legislation again was a topic of conversation at an interim legislative meeting last week. The head of the West Virginia Associated Builders and Contractors told lawmakers that making the data available to the public is an invasion of workers’ privacy and discloses propriety information, according to a report in the Charleston Gazette- Mail. The spokesman said competing companies can review the information and use it to underbid contractors on future projects.

That argument seems to forget that competitive bids are required on most publicly funded projects, so the notion that contractors are seeking to undercut each other is hardly a new concept. Competitive bidding serves the taxpayer well.

Another argument was that since the legislature last year did away with the prevailing wage requirements on public projects – meaning that workers had to be paid specific minimum hourly rates on a variety of jobs – disclosing the workers’ was no longer necessary.

That brings up another accountability issue. One of the chief arguments for eliminating the prevailing wage was that doing so would reduce the cost of public projects in West Virginia and make taxpayers’ dollars go further. But assessing whether that’s true would be made more difficult without public access to wage levels now being paid on projects.

Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, also spoke to lawmakers last week and made two other critical points for keeping the wage information accessible, according to the Gazette-Mail. One was that the wage information is important to uncovering fraud and waste in public projects. The other was that West Virginia could soon start up to $3 million worth of road projects, meaning there will be a lot of money at stake and having public monitoring will be important.

It’s contrary to the public interest to shield the wage information, especially now.

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