After Republicans rode a wave of working class frustration into national and state office in 2016, some of those blue collar voters might expect legislators in Iowa to go to work on their behalf. Instead, this Iowa legislative session has been marked by numerous attempts from the new all-Republican majorities to undermine working people’s wages.
One piece of legislation that has received relatively less attention than the major Planned Parenthood, school funding and collective bargaining fights has to do with how road maintenance is funded.
Republicans in the Iowa House and Senate are pushing forward twin pieces of legislation that would allow the state to pay lower wages to workers doing road maintenance jobs, as well as get around a federal provision to buy American-made steel. It’s part of a fund swap scheme involving state and federal dollars.
Senator Tim Kapucian and Representative Gary Carlson have introduced identical bills in their respective chambers, SSB 1003 and HSB 9. As you can see, on its face it sounds rather confusing and unimportant:
However, what is really at stake here is the Davis Bacon Act, which sets prevailing wage. A separate national act requires infrastructure projects to use American steel.
Here’s how road funding in Iowa works currently: a mixture of local, state and federal dollars are allocated to both the primary and secondary road projects in the state. Primary roads are the interstate and U.S. highways. Secondary roads are the municipal streets, rural highways and backroads.
When you use federal dollars on a road project, the Davis Bacon Act’s regulations come into effect. Chief among those is prevailing wage, which means that you have to pay workers working on a project the typical wage that they could make on similar construction jobs in that area. That ensures that jobs funded by taxpayers actually pay a decent, comparative and fair wage. As long as even $1 of federal funds is involved in a public project, you have to use Davis Bacon wage rates.
State funding for road projects include no such wage provisions. So what Iowa Republicans are attempting to do is move all federal dollars into the primary road fund, and move state dollars into the secondary road projects. Essentially, Republicans want to do a dollar-for-dollar swap of federal to state dollars from secondary to primary roads. Some critics refer to it as money laundering.
The goal here of Republicans is to have no federal dollars in one of the two road funds. That way they still get all of the federal funding, but don’t have to pay decent wages or use American steel for many Iowa projects.
Terry Branstad’s Department of Transportation Director Stuart Anderson talked up the fund swap idea three years ago at a public meeting. He suggested the idea would lead to quicker projects and less red tape. The main red tape he’s referring to, however, is paying workers a decent wage.
This might please some construction contractors, who prefer to bring in out-of-state workers for infrastructure projects, or at least don’t like to pay fair rates based on local wages. It’ll certainly cut costs for them, but at the expense of Iowans who do the sometimes dangerous work of building, repairing and maintaining Iowa roads.
It could also have a major drag on local Iowa economies. Travel around the state and everywhere you go you’ll find restaurants and bars filled with men and women in orange construction vests. Local hotels are filled with longterm guests working on a new onramp or interchange project. Construction projects – especially infrastructure ones – bring small booms to local main street economies. If they have less money in their pocket, they won’t be spending it in local Iowa businesses.
Many of the people who work those jobs are the same ones who voted en masse for Donald Trump and his Republican counterparts on the ballot last November. Indeed, one of Trump’s best applause lines was about how the country is going to “Buy American” and “Build American” again.
Trump specifically mentioned U.S. steel being used in infrastructure projects. And yet Iowa Republicans are restructuring road funding specifically to get around a federal provision to require the buying of American-made steel. It’s highly likely that Iowa road projects will instead be furnished by cheap Chinese steel. Republicans at the federal level are trying to outright repeal the Buy American Act altogether.
The change in wage provisions will also disproportionately hit the pocketbooks of many rural Iowans, a group that also sent their votes overwhelmingly to Trump. Construction workers who head out to repair Zone 5 roads out in the most rural areas of the state will see contractors try to stiff them as much as possible on how much they’re paid.
It’s all part of a series of legislative proposals that the Republican Party is putting forward in Iowa this session to eat away at working people’s wages every way they can find. All those blue collar voters who saw Trump and Republicans as their champion last year might start to rethink their allegiances if they pay close attention to what is actually passing into law by the new GOP majorities.
Both House and Senate bills have made it through their committees, but need to be passed in each chamber. There’s still time for Iowans to contact their legislators about the bills.
by Pat Rynard