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Making NJ Affordable Shouldn’t Mean Cutting Wages For Skilled Tradesmen

The New Jersey Statehouse. Senator Doherty's bill unfairly impacts skilled tradesmen, the writer argues.

A recent poll showed 44 percent of the people are planning on leaving New Jersey– soon. The reason is costs. It’s a damn expensive place to live. Gov. Murphy is accepting of the fact that New Jersey taxes are high (and likely to go higher) so either get used to it or move. Republican State Sen. Mike Doherty has recently chimed in with his ideas on creating affordability and his approach isn’t much better than the governor’s. The senator wants to punish hard working tradesmen and blame them for New Jersey’s affordability crisis.

Doherty has sponsored a bill (S-175) that will allegedly deal with bringing down the cost of transportation infrastructure construction. But Doherty has already betrayed the real reason for the legislation – it is his published opinion that that New Jersey’s prevailing wage laws are the culprit in the state’s high costs and that the state would be better off if it paid building tradesmen a lot less. Baloney.

Skilled tradesmen built the infrastructure upon which the state’s economy rests. It is their hard work that allow people like Sen. Doherty to reap the economic benefit of the tradesmen’s hard work.  Nevertheless, Sen. Doherty, an attorney, is reviving a shopworn attack on the state’s prevailing wage law.  (The prevailing wage is the union wage scale for skilled trades workers in publicly financed projects.) There are many things that make New Jersey unaffordable, but the prevailing wage law isn’t one of them.

New Jersey ranks at or near the bottom in every measurable economic index from property taxes, to debt, to business environment. Despite the obvious need to cut unnecessary spending, borrowing and regulation, Sen. Doherty, blames skilled labor for the state’s high cost of living.  He finds trade unionists making $68 an-hour for public projects untenable. But that wage (of which $40 is actual salary and the rest is benefits, pension and training costs) is a pittance compared to what those in Doherty’s profession take from taxpayers.

A large share of public infrastructure costs is paid long before the jobs are even started. The money is paid to lawyers, bond counsel and other professionals used to execute the borrowing to finance the projects. The professional class also exacts healthy fees from taxpayers to conduct the consulting work on the actual projects once the money is in hand. These professionals enjoy generous six figure consulting fees are they are paid at every level of government and at dozens of obscure agencies and authorities, such as county improvement authorities.

For example, last year the Passaic County Freeholders funded construction of a new public works building and bonded $17 million through the county improvement authority. The fees paid to lawyers and other financial consultants to borrow that money was $241,000! Over in Bergen County, the improvement authority there paid out more than $431,000 in professional fees for six of its last 10 financings – topping out at $674,000 for one refinancing package! State government pays similar sky-high fees to professionals just to borrow money.

The fees paid to execute borrowing are not competitively bid nor are they publicly reported. Similarly, legal, and other professional work commissioned by governments for construction projects are not subject to the state’s bidding laws.

If Sen. Doherty truly wanted to reduce costs for public works project, he would sponsor legislation mandating competitive bidding and transparency for professional fees; but I doubt he or any other legislator is willing to do that. For Doherty to complain about the high cost of living in New Jersey and then turn a blind eye toward the lucrative dark-money industry of professional fees is at best hypocritical. Don’t those fees contribute to the state’s affordability problem?

Good paying jobs in New Jersey are disappearing as corporations move to less expensive states. Manufacturing jobs have been pushed out for decades; replaced by low wage service jobs. And with the growing internet economy, even low wage retail jobs are disappearing. The only jobs that New Jersey seems to entice lately are low-wage warehouse jobs.

The prevailing wage money paid to union tradesmen are among the few good-paying jobs that still exist in this state. The prevailing wage law makes certain that those who are charged with updating our electrical, water and transportation infrastructure are capable of sustaining themselves and their families. The wages earned by tradesmen helps support the local economy and ensures that contractors hire skilled, knowledgeable workers trained in their craft and in safety precautions.  If Sen. Doherty had his way, state contractors could hire unskilled labor or illegal immigrants and pay them whatever they pleased.  From an attorney’s perspective that may seem okay, but it is not fair to working people or good for our economy.

To create an affordable New Jersey, our elected officials need to summon the courage to cut unnecessary spending and the discipline to set spending priorities and stick to them – and not place the burden of cost cutting on hardworking trades people.

BY CHRISTIAN BARRANCO

Christian Barranco is a journeyman member of IBEW Local 102 and presently works as a project manager and supervisor on many large, critical energy and industrial infrastructure projects in New Jersey. He is also the founder of Square Deal for NJ, an organization founded to encourage ideas to address New Jersey’s many problems.

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