UPDATED 5:15 p.m.
INDIANAPOLIS – A controversial bill that will eliminate the 80-year-old common construction wage in Indiana passed the Senate by a narrow margin Wednesday.
HB 1019 eliminates a system that let local governments and schools set wage floors that contractors must meet on public projects. Often those wages are set at union levels, which critics say elevates the cost of projects and supporters say keeps qualified workers on the job.
Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, said the debate around the common construction wage repeal seems “eerily similar” to the divisive right-to-work debate three years ago. That law freed workers from paying fees to unions they didn’t join and met with similar outrage among labor groups.
“So many times the rhetoric we hear out there doesn’t always match the facts,” Yoder said.
After the Senate passed the bill, Yoder released a statement and said the state needs to repeal the wage.
“It is time to repeal Indiana’s broken common construction wage system,” Yoder said. “We can maintain high standards for government contractors without relying on artificially determined wages that don’t truly reflect the local market.”
But a number of Republicans voted against the bill. At one point during the testimony, Senate Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, walked around the Senate chamber in what looked like an attempt to persuade other senators to vote for the repeal.
It passed 27-22 after a two-hour debate.
Sen. Karen Talian, D-Portage, said she believes the common wage has been working for the last 80 years and there is no reason to repeal it.
“I do not agree with the entire premise of the bill. It is offered to fix some problem,” Tallian said. “There is no problem.”
Tallian said that no one in the state wants that bill and that even some of the lawmakers who voted for it don’t want it.
“We need to do the right thing. We need to vote no,” Tallian said. “This bill is incorrect.”
Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, said she would not vote for a bill that would lower wages for Hoosier workers across the state. And then Becker refused to yield to questions from Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, after speaking on the issue.
A dozen Republicans, including Becker, voted against the bill.
Gov. Mike Pence released a statement on Wednesday commending the Senate for passing the bill, which he said is a priority on his legislative agenda.
“When the Indiana Senate voted today to repeal the common construction wage, they put taxpayers first, providing much-needed relief to cash-strapped local governments and schools,” Pence said.
The bill now returns to the House, where members can accept changes made by the Senate or send the bill to a conference committee where lawmakers will try to find a compromise on their differing versions of the bill.
Alec Gray is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.