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By James B. Nelson June 5, 2015

Group claims repeal of prevailing wage would open an 'illegal worker loophole'

The state’s prevailing wage law, in place for 84 years, sets a minimum wage for construction workers involved with publicly funded projects.

Critics say the law artificially inflates wages and raises the cost of projects, meaning taxpayers pay more. Supporters say the law ensures quality work and fair pay for workers.

The Assembly Labor Committee voted 5-4 on May 27, 2015  to advance a measure that would repeal the law. Through a spokeswoman, Gov. Scott Walker said he would sign a bill repealing or amending the law. But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says he has no plans to schedule a vote.

Meanwhile, a group calling itself Protect American jobs has launched a television ad that warns of unintended consequences if the prevailing wage law is changed.

"Wisconsin worksites could soon be taken over with illegal workers," the announcer intones. "Politicians in Madison are about to weaken the law to make it easier for state contractors to hire illegal workers for Wisconsin construction jobs."

The ad goes on to urges viewers to contact Walker and tell him "no to the illegal worker loophole in the state budget."

Wait. Illegal workers?

Before the ad started running, no one was talking about that issue. Would the prevailing wage measure "make it easier for state contractors to hire illegal workers"?

Illegal workers

Let’s start with the most basic problem: The ad says the measure is in the state budget. But the move to repeal prevailing wage has been introduced as a separate piece of legislation, not as part of the 2015-’17 spending plan.

On the substance of the claim, we tried to reach the group, but did not get a response, so we turned to the ad itself and the group’s website.

In the ad, a caption on the screen cites "ABC/ACG policy letter: 3/13/2013" during one mention of illegal workers.

That appears to be a letter urging immigration law reform that was sent to members of Congress by a group that called itself a "broad base of contractors" that employ "thousands in all facets of construction."

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The letter says that "any future immigration law must include a new market driven program to provide a legal path for foreign workers to enter the United States when the economy needs them, with fewer entering when the U.S. economy contracts."

OK, but that refers to legal immigration. And the letter came years before this prevailing wage measure was introduced.

The Protect American Jobs web site goes further, suggesting the "real motivation" for the prevailing wage repeal can be found in a different letter from an executive with the Associated Building Contractors, a non-union group. That letter cited the need to "make it easier for people to move to the United States from other countries and work in the construction industry."

Again, that refers to legal immigration.

The group also refers to an  April 2015 paper by University of Utah economist Peter Philips -- written at the request of the Wisconsin Contractors Coalition -- that notes the end of prevailing wage laws would lead to lower pay and less apprentice training.

The paper goes on to say that other states where such laws have been repealed have seen a call for guest workers, because when wages fell contractors had trouble attracting workers.

But a guest worker program does not amount to illegal workers. By its very definition, guest workers are in the United States legally.

What’s more, the television ad doesn’t say there could be such problems down the road. It says the proposed bill, as written, contains an "illegal worker loophole."

For that, we turned to the Wisconsin Legislative Council, which issued a May 26, 2015 memo that said flatly the proposed bill doesn’t address immigration. The council assists members of both parties with the drafting of legislation.

"While the bill removes the requirement for employers to maintain certain records concerning wages paid to workers on a project of public works, that requirement relates only to enforcement of the prevailing wage law by the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) and the Department of Transportation (DOT)," the memo reads. "The repeal of that record -keeping requirement does not affect enforcement of federal immigration laws by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security."

Our rating

A television ad from a group against repeal of the state’s prevailing wage law says such a measure would "make it easier for state contractors to hire illegal workers for Wisconsin construction jobs." This "illegal worker loophole," it says, is in the state budget.

But the bill doesn’t have any direct impact on immigration laws and the group’s own references to potential problems -- down the road -- describe workers who would be here legally, not illegally. It also fails on the basic claim of the stand-alone measure being in the state budget.

We rate the claim False.

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Group claims repeal of prevailing wage would open an 'illegal worker loophole'

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