Gubernatorial hopefuls call for local governments to decide prevailing wage

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The three major Democratic candidates for Kansas governor said Saturday that local governments should be able to decide whether to pay union-scale wages on public construction projects.

Former state Rep. Josh Svaty, state Sen. Laura Kelly and former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said they would like to see the state restore local governments’ ability to decide the so-called prevailing wage issue on their own.

Five years ago, a conservative-led Legislature passed a law barring local governments from paying prevailing wage on public projects, a move that only affected Wyandotte County’s Unified Government at the time.

Supporters of the bill argued that prevailing wage inflated the cost of public construction projects, leading to increased government spending. Opponents argued that the bill stomped on local governments’ ability decide what policy is best for their local residents.

At a Democratic gubernatorial forum at Kansas City, Kan. Community College on Saturday, Svaty was the first candidate to raise the issue in response to a question about how the candidates would consider Wyandotte County’s needs as governor.

“If you want Wyandotte County to succeed, you got to let Wyandotte County be Wyandotte County,” Svaty said before launching into a discussion about prevailing wage.

“The Unified Government here has wanted to set its own prevailing wage,” Svaty said. “All they’re saying is, ‘Hey, if we’re going to spend taxpayer dollars on a project, we should make sure the contractors doing that work are paying a fair, equitable wage.’

“It’s been the state that’s standing in the way of that,” Svaty said.

While the issue didn’t re-emerge during the 90-minute debate, Kelly and Brewer said afterward they agreed that local governments should decide the issue.

Reiterating a common theme in her campaign appearances, Kelly said the prevailing wage issue is just one of many that need to be repaired after eight years of leadership under former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and his lieutenant, now Gov. Jeff  Colyer. Gov. Colyer is running for the gubernatorial nomination on the Republican side.

“If you’ve got a more labor friendly governor,” Kelly said, “those things can get more traction than when they go to somebody that absolutely despises labor.”

Kelly said local governments should be allowed decide the prevailing wage issue on their own. “If they want to do that, let them do that,” she said.  “I have no trouble with that.”

In affirming his support of returning local control, Brewer said prevailing wage can help workers earn pay allowing them to care for their families.

The forum – which also included lesser-financed candidates Jack Bergeson and Arden Andersen – lacked any of the sparring seen last week in Wichita where Svaty, Kelly and Brewer clashed over abortion. There was no talk about the candidates’ differences on guns, a potentially sensitive subject after the events of the last 24 hours in Wyandotte County.

The forum began on a somber note with a moment of silence for the two Wyandotte County sheriff’s deputies who were shot and killed.

From then on, the candidates walked through some of their policy positions on education, expanding Medicaid, KanCare and voting.

Here are some other highlights from the debate:

Kelly

Kelly promised to end the state’s privatized Medicaid program known as KanCare.  “That needs to be reversed and I will reverse that,” she said.

Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly of Topeka makes a point during Saturday’s forum.

She also promised to expand Medicaid, something the Legislature came close to passing last year but came up short against a veto from former Gov. Sam Brownback. “That is essential to ensuring that people of low income have access to health care.”

The senator also promised to invest “heavily” in early childhood education. “If we want to talk about a way long term to solve the issue of poverty, we cannot ignore the fact that education is the route out of poverty.”  Kelly places a premium on making sure that children, by the time they’re 5, are ready to learn.

Svaty

The former state lawmaker said he supports automatic voter registration similar to that of states such as Oregon, which automatically registers eligible residents who have driver’s licenses unless they otherwise decline. He generally said he wanted to roll back voting laws that discourage voter registration. “We need to be making it easier for people to vote rather than harder,” Svaty said. “I think it’s goofy for us to put up road blocks to keep people from getting registered to vote.”

Former state Rep. Josh Svaty chats it up with former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer before Saturday afternoon’s forum.

Svaty supported in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants when he was a lawmaker. “It cost the state virtually nothing. It’s the right thing to do for a lot of young people. We still know that getting that higher education is the best pathway to move up.”

Brewer

Brewer supports health care for everyone. “I believe every single person should be entitled to some form of adequate health care. We need to have every person to have an opportunity to have health care. It is our responsibility as human beings to be able to do that.” He said health care is his No. 1 priority.

The former Wichita mayor stressed how much he cares about the rights of individuals. “I’m sensitive when I see injustice being done to individuals and to families and to children and to seniors. In my administration, that will not be tolerated at any point in time. Anyone’s rights will not be violated in any way. I’m going to pay close attention.”

Brewer believes he’s the guy who can win. While acknowledging there are other good candidates in the Democratic primary, Brewer said he’s the one who can draw voters from all parties. As the former mayor of Wichita, Brewer said he has experience working on issues ranging from the economy to health care to homelessness. “Which one of the candidates can beat Kobach (or) Colyer? That’s what it’s all about.”