Tucson city contractors must pay 'prevailing wage' after Council vote

Tucson has become the second Arizona city to approve a “prevailing wage” requirement for public works contracts.

Phoenix beat us by a matter of hours.

The City Council voted unanimously this week to approve the new policy on the same day Phoenix did the same. The Tucson Council met at 5:30 p.m. Phoenix’s convened three hours earlier.

The new rule applies to contractors bidding on city projects. It requires those companies to pay their workers the going rate for work commissioned and funded by the city.

How much will it cost? City leaders aren’t sure.

Right now, the city has two staffers overseeing 11 projects each and involving 120 subcontractors. The city will have to hire up to seven new workers to enforce these new rules. 

Councilmember Steve Kozachik asked City Manager Mike Ortega if he had an idea about how much more this would cost the next round of the Regional Transportation Authority’s list of projects.

The answer is still up in the air, Ortega told him.

Only after the RTA Board comes up with a list of projects can those projects be accurately projected. None of this has happened yet.

Mayor Regina Romero called the living wage ordinance one of many necessary steps to improve Tucson’s standard of living.

She ticked off the list: Increased funding for neighborhoods government has long forgotten, after schools program in schools, the joint Prosperity Initiative with Pima County and politicking for minimum wage increases are some of the areas the city has had success in achieving.

“All of these efforts are not just ‘popcorn’ issues,” Romero said. “We don’t look at it all separately– but all layered approaches to prosperity for our families in Tucson. Prevailing wage is an important piece of puzzle.”

The issue only came about because Attorney General Kris Mayes removed a legal barricade.

In 2016, voters approved a minimum wage initiative that included a provision allowing for “prevailing wage” ordinances. That’s important because state law banned them.

Former AG Mark Brnovich, a Republican, called the voter-approved initiative inoperative, and decided the state ban held.

Mayes, a Democrat, took up the issue once assuming office and ruled that what voters approved should be the law.

Is it a bit of a Democrat saying a tie goes to labor after a Republican decided a draw goes to business? No. It’s a whole lot of that, not just a bit.

So the interpretation could face legal challenges, Councilmember Lane Santa Cruz astutely predicted, and followed up with a rhetorical flourish about not caring about that. It passed 6-0; neither did the other voting members of the Council give a hoot (Councilmember Paul Cunningham was absent).

I just wonder how many employers are going to face significantly adverse effects because of this and not, say, high interest rates, a U.S. crackdown on immigration or Arizona community colleges being as underfunded as the state’s public schools.

The term “prevailing wage” is a bit loaded. It’s whatever the market will bear, right? Well, it can also be adjusted up to whatever the market can bear.

It’s worth remembering the labor shortage continues in the types of jobs that public works contracts need to fill. Wages are up in those fields, so not many contractors are in a position to lowball workers.

During the call to the audience, Michael Guymon, CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber, complained about local companies not being consulted, and “unanswered questions” about how some projects will be affected. A few of the small group of residents attending the meeting cat-called the business representative during his comments.

According to the woke mob at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Arizona has 55,000 more job openings than unemployed residents. A labor squeeze like that is not a recipe for “take-this-job-and-love-it” management principles.

No, I don’t see this having a massive effect on wages. Buy milk. Buy honey. Just don’t go overboard putting them together.

It’s not a bad floor to have in place so that contractors can’t bid jobs having underpaid workers to gain a price advantage. Then again, the price is just one criteria the city uses to decide who gets a deal.

I can promise to finish the Grant Road widening for the low, low price of $5 million and some crab legs. That doesn’t mean I have any idea how to pave a road. Hey,  I’ll take the money and laugh all the way to Far-Away-By-the Sea. Hopefully they’ll have drawn butter. City administrators have to think about more than just price.

The federal government has been operating with a similar law called the Davis-Bacon Act, which was approved in 1931.

Since then, the U.S. has won a hot world war and a generations-long Cold War riding shotgun to an economy that created the modern middle class, the iPhone and the air fryer. All the while, the rich have replaced their gold plating with platinum and fairy dust.

Prevailing wage laws have hardly destroyed the free market or killed wealth creation.

What will it do to Tucson? It’s part of a trend where a bunch of policies could have an effect. If not, the local Republicans can always run against the Democratic Council’s failures if they can stop talking about adrenochrome long enough.