Common Sense - Saving Community by a Whisker
Written by Kevin Hanley
Should “Project Auburn,” an all-day event held every year in which hundreds of student and adult volunteers gather at Old Town and Downtown to paint buildings and curbs, plant new trees, remove trash, and build benches for the public, be illegal? Should “Creek Week,” in which hundreds of volunteers in Lincoln, Rocklin and Roseville gather to clean up and maintain nearby creeks, also be illegal? It may be hard to believe but the California Legislature only grudgingly allows these wonderful community projects to continue.
The Legislature tried to sneak one by us when Governor Gray Davis signed SB 975 (Alarcon) of 2001 into law. This new law, sponsored by big unions, required that every public works project be constructed by workers paid at the prevailing wage. It didn’t take long for the real implications of this law to be realized. The state Department of Water Resources (DWR) had provided grant funding to the Sacramento Watersheds Action Group for a stream restoration project on Sulphur Creek in the City of Redding. Students from Shasta College got involved by planting seeds, clearing brush, repairing culverts, installing rock beds to prevent erosion and trash removal. They did this work for free. But after a complaint was received by a local labor union, DWR looked more closely at the legal requirements of SB 975 and declared that it would halt all future steam restoration projects constructed by volunteers.
Environmental groups came out of the woodwork when they learned that SB 975 and its prevailing wage requirement would shut down stream restoration and other important projects throughout the state. They battled the labor unions and won a victory with passage of AB 2690 (Hancock) of 2004, which exempted volunteers working on public works projects from the prevailing wage requirement. However, there was a catch. AB 2690 included a “sunset clause,” which meant that the law providing the exemption for volunteers would run out on January 1, 2009.
The battle to preserve volunteerism and community began once again this year in the California Legislature. SB 1375 (Ashburn) was introduced to make the volunteer exemption permanent. This common sense measure was killed in the first committee. A “compromise” measure, AB 2537 (Furutani), which proposed to extend the volunteer exemption from January 1, 2009 to January 1, 2012, passed the Assembly by a vote of 75-0 on May 19th. But then the shenanigans began. With less than three weeks left in the legislative session, the Senate Appropriations Committee killed AB 2537 by using the shady parliamentary tactic of “holding the bill” on the so-called “Suspense File.” The end result of this action was that starting on January 1, 2009, every public works project in the state would have to be constructed by workers making the prevailing wage or not at all. And because this requirement makes projects too expensive, great community projects throughout the state would die on the vine.
But then a funny thing happened. As the legislative session was nearing its scheduled end on September 1, various newspaper writers and citizens started asking, “What happened to AB 2537?” They soon discovered that the Senate Appropriations Committee had killed a bill that was passed 75-0 by the Assembly. Senators doing the bidding of big labor could no longer hide. Under public pressure, AB 2537 was, on the very last day of session, withdrawn from the Senate Appropriations Committee, passed the Senate 34-3 and the Assembly once again 77-0. It is expected that the Governor will sign the bill to preserve the common sense exemption for volunteers for another three years.
This tale illustrates a simple lesson. The legislature cannot be trusted on its own to preserve volunteerism and community. They will cave to powerful financial interests that fund their campaigns unless the public gets involved and insists on preserving local community. In 2008, community was once again saved by a whisker. We need more thoughtful legislators who automatically value volunteers and community and will fight the special interests on our behalf.
Kevin Hanley serves on the Auburn City Council and as Chief Consultant on health and insurance legislation with the California Legislature. Send your comments to Kevin at
Subscribe to this comment's feed
written by David Denholm,
September 11, 2008
The problem with prevailing wages is that they don't prevail. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 17 percent of California construction workers are represented by unions, yet the state Department of Industrial Relations says that union wages prevail. That's impossible. Paying volunteers any wage, pervailing or not, makes no sense. It also makes no sense to pay wages on public works construction projects that are inflated to satisfy politically powerful union special interests at the taxpayers' expense.
smaller | bigger
Subscribe via email (Registered users only)
I have read and agree to the Terms of Usage.
Write the displayed characters
© 2007-2011 auburnbuzz.com All Rights Reserved.