Construction progress on the Ohio Street bridge in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Mitch DeBlois is the president of DeBlois Electric in Lewiston and the board chairman of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine.

Taxpayers should be alarmed about proposed state legislation that could needlessly increase taxpayer-funded construction costs, discourage competition from the local construction industry and steer contracts to out-of-state campaign contributors. This policy would likely only benefit powerful special interests instead of creating opportunities for Maine businesses and their employees that want to compete for public works contracts on a level playing field.

At issue are proposed bills that would incentivize, or in some cases require, controversial government-mandated project labor agreements on certain taxpayer-funded construction projects.

When mandated by governments, project labor agreements or PLAs discourage qualified, local, nonunion contractors — like my company — that employ 89.5 percent of Maine’s construction industry workers from competing to build projects funded by taxpayer dollars.

Government-mandated PLAs force contractors to follow often inefficient union work rules and hire most or all craft workers on a jobsite from specified union hiring halls and union apprenticeship programs instead of skilled workers and apprentices already employed by companies. That limits the pool of bidders, because nonunion contractors do not want to abandon their existing employees and quality-control practices — key components of a safe and productive workplace — for strangers from union halls governed by unfamiliar rules.

In addition, under PLA mandates, Maine’s construction workforce would have to pay unnecessary dues to unions as a condition of employment. Employees could suffer wage theft, because nonunion workers ( and some union workers) lose an estimated 20 percent of wages and benefits earned on a PLA project unless they accept union representation, join a specific union, pay membership dues and meet the union benefits plan’s vesting requirements.

Taxpayers lose under PLAs, too. Multiple studies show that government-mandated PLAs raise the final construction costs of building schools by up to 20 percent relative to non-PLA school construction in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Ohio, even when school projects are subject to prevailing wage laws with or without PLAs, as is the case in Maine.

Maine simply cannot afford such waste with so many school construction and other infrastructure needs.

For these reasons, 24 states outlaw government-mandated PLAs on public works projects, thereby ensuring fair and open competition on taxpayer-funded construction projects so that the public can get the best possible construction projects at the best possible price. In fact, Maine taxpayers benefited from a similar law in place from 2011 until its sunset in October 2015, and its renewal was obstructed by legislative Democrats.

Now with full control of the Legislature, Democratic Party lawmakers and their union patrons are pushing new bills that could result in fewer new schools, libraries, affordable housing, roads, bridges and infrastructure improvements, or tax hikes or cuts to other important programs and the salaries of public employees like teachers, police and firefighters.

Special interests — mainly construction union lobbyists and their members, who make up just 10.5 percent of Maine’s private construction workforce — have made passage of pro-PLA and so-called responsible contractor policies a top priority in the final days of the 2021 legislative session in order gain market share through help from sympathetic lawmakers.

Should these bills pass, it will be Maine’s construction companies and their workers who will suffer, because they are predominantly nonunion and are discouraged from competing for projects subject to these special-interest schemes. Meanwhile, large companies and their unionized workforces from Massachusetts and New York will have an unfair advantage, disrupting the local market at the expense of Maine businesses and their skilled construction workforce.

After the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Maine lawmakers should be doing all they can to support our local recovery. Visit BuildMaineLocal.com to send a message to Maine lawmakers today and let them know you oppose PLAs and other anti-competitive and costly legislation. Local taxpayers, workers and small businesses should come first.