A new Kentucky House of Representatives committee hit the ground running at its first meeting Wednesday, passing a right-to-work bill and a measure to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law.
House Republicans took out their new political power for a test drive that could result in both bills landing on Gov. Matt Bevin’s desk this week. The state Senate has long supported both measures, which GOP lawmakers consider to be business friendly.
The bills are bitterly opposed by the state’s unions, whose leadership said the actions “declare war” on Kentucky’s working families.
In just two hours, the new House Economic Development and Workforce Investment Committee, chaired by state Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green, approved the right-to-work measure, House Bill 1, and the prevailing wage repeal, House Bill 3. The committee votes were along party lines.
Both bills now move to the House floor Thursday. The GOP controls the House 64-36 and the Senate 27-11.
The new legislature is taking a break from Friday to Feb. 7 for reorganization before more of the 30-day short session is expected
to take up charter school legislation and an ultrasound bill intended to give women more information before an intended abortion. The Kentucky State American Civil Liberties Union opposes the ultrasound bill.
The right-to-work and prevailing wage bills could have started in the state Senate again this year, but GOP lawmakers are tired of waiting to enact the legislation.
“Why wait?” DeCesare said Wednesday after the committee meeting. “This has been our No. 1 agenda item.”
Not only that, the law has also been DeCesare’s No. 1 legislative priority for about 13 years. He submitted his first right-to-work bill during his first session. Each succeeding year he saw Democratic House leaders turn a deaf ear to the idea.
“This is historic,” DeCesare said of the committee votes. “The whole Republican caucus has labored for this for years.”
DeCesare said he doesn’t expect much Democratic Party support in the House or the Senate. He added that even some Republicans, depending on where their legislative districts are located in Kentucky, might not support the measures.
State Rep. Steve Riley, R-Glasgow, said Kentucky needs the measures and predicted that they will pass the House.
“We’re in a situation where we are competing with other states and countries for jobs,” he said.
Kentucky is also surrounded by the right-to-work designated states of Indiana, Tennessee and West Virginia. If approved, Kentucky would become the 27th right-to-work state in the nation and the last to embrace the concept in the South.
Riley said the repeal of the state prevailing wage on public projects will save taxpayers millions of dollars.
“Prevailing wage laws give workers an extra salary for working on public works projects. Under the repeal, they would make the wages that they would normally make,” Riley said.
State Rep. Wilson Stone, D-Scottsville, voted no for both measures in the committee Wednesday but noted they have merit.
Recently elected by House Democrats as House minority whip, Stone said he expects the two bills to pass.
“That’s a rapid pace for significant legislation,” he said.
Stone said he thought DeCesare chaired a fair two-hour hearing on the bills. Proceedings weren’t affected by union protesters there.
The political sea change that began Tuesday in Frankfort and continued Wednesday with the historic House committee votes has been slowly building for several years.
“Right-to-work and repeal of the prevailing wage have been on our legislative priority list for as long as I can remember,” said Ron Bunch, president and chief executive officer of the Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce.
“This is simply giving people a choice in how they choose to invest their money,” Bunch said.
The right-to-work bill calls for no employee be required, as a condition of employment or a continuation of employment, to become or remain a member of a labor organization. It also eliminates the requirement of an employee to pay any dues, fees, assessments to a labor organization.
First up to testify before the new state House committee – formerly House Labor and Industry – on Wednesday was Bevin, who told supporters this week in Frankfort that the legislature will have a “laser vision” of commitment to new laws that can help all Kentuckians.
Bevin said right-to-work is critical to Kentucky being able to attract jobs.
Bevin also got into a hallway discussion with right-to-work law opponents. Union members held placards and chanted during some of the discussion between Bevin and two men in a video that exploded across several social media platforms.
Opposing Bevin was Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO.
“Politicians didn’t create the labor movement and politicians aren’t going to destroy the labor movement,” Londrigan said in a statement emailed to the Daily News on Wednesday
“Kentucky’s working families are suffering,” Londrigan wrote. “They are facing employment, health care access and education challenges. The Kentucky GOP not only ignored their plight, they made them worse with these anti-worker bills.”
In November, a federal appeals court reversed a lower court’s ruling that struck down a so-called right-to-work ordinance passed in Hardin County in 2015.
In a 3-0 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit held that the ordinance does not violate the National Labor Relations Act, the federal law that regulates the relationships between employers and unions.
Warren County was the first county in the nation to pass a right-to-work ordinance, doing so late in 2014, and 11 other counties – including Simpson, Butler and Logan – followed. Most recently it was announced there is a right-to-work movement also in Hart County.
The Hardin County ordinance was challenged in court by several labor unions, leading to a ruling from U.S. District Court Judge David Hale for the Western District of Kentucky in February that the National Labor Relations Act preempted local regulation of union agreements, meaning that only states had the authority to implement such laws.
The county governments appealed Hale’s ruling to the 6th Circuit appeals court, which found the NLRA’s recognition of states’ authority to prohibit union-security agreements extended to “political subdivisions of the state,” which encompassed local governments.
— Follow business reporter Charles A. Mason on Twitter @BGDNbusiness or visit bgdailynews.com.