Secretive, union-only power-grab

Gov. David A. Paterson and the Legislature managed to sneak through under the cover of secrecy legislation that failed to pass last year in a more open process. As details of the secretly negotiated budget emerge, New Yorkers were surprised to learn that Albany had enacted the first major reforms of the Wicks Law in more than 40 years.

Municipalities and school districts have long argued for revisions in the law's requirement to break down construction projects exceeding $50,000 into separate contracts for general construction, heating, plumbing and electrical work. The original law dates from 1912, but the threshold triggering the mandates has not been updated since the 1960s.

Public agencies subject to the law say it raises costs unnecessarily since it requires them to draft four separate bidding documents and specifications for each prime contractor. They then have to oversee the work themselves or hire someone to coordinate the multiple contractors, when it could be done through a single general contractor who subcontracts for the other work.

Last year, then-Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer had proposed changes that would eliminate some 70 percent of the projects covered by the Wicks Law to save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. The plan failed, but what did not pass public scrutiny suddenly appeared again, without prior public discussion or awareness, as part of the just-enacted state budget.

Under the changes, the law will be effective in New York City for projects exceeding $3 million, $1.5 million for downstate suburbs and $500,000 for the rest of the state. The different levels are meant to reflect differing construction costs.

While they are the same as proposed last year, the change also includes another provision that waives the law for municipal contracts that contain a project labor agreement. They have been used in the north country, but not without controversy since they mandate the use of union labor. Nonunion contractors object to the restrictions, which they say shuts them out of the bidding and can drive up construction costs.

The Wicks Law was in need of change, but the revisions will have very limited impact in Northern New York. Just take a look at all the school construction or other public building projects that far exceed the $500,000 threshold that will still require four separate contracts.

But there was no opportunity for opponents to register their objections or press the Legislature for more meaningful change in Albany's secrecy.


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