For 75 years state building projects have favored “bona fide” Idaho workers. A law from the 1933 session requires that 95 percent of the labor on large government building projects be Idaho workers.
This “Idaho First” law has not been enforced in recent memory, and a bill now before the Legislature aims to exempt the largest building project in the state – the restoration and expansion of the Capitol – from the requirement.
The major contractor on the job is basing his final price on passage of the bill, but some Idaho labor unions are asking lawmakers why they would want to outsource the work.
“When you have the highest profile project in the state and you can’t maintain a commitment to hire local people to work on it something is very wrong,” said John Littel, political director for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters.
In addition, the Depression-era law is included in state contracts, but not enforced and the Department of Public Works has no way of accounting for who is working on the job site.
“Nobody’s trying to suggest in any way that we ought not to be using Idaho workers, but we need to open the field up so we get some workers… or more competitive bids,” said Tim Mason, administrator of Public Works.
Work on two new underground wings and an $80 million restoration of the old Capitol began as last year’s Legislature left town. So far, foundations have been poured on the wings and the restoration of the historic Statehouse has mainly involved a careful demolition.
But contractors say they are having a tough time finding the right workers in Idaho to get the job done.
“Idaho does not have some of the trades required to do the work,” said John Emery, senior project manager for Jacobsen Hunt, the joint venture that is managing the Capitol renovation.
There are some technical jobs required by the restoration project. Chief among them is the scagliola, a faux marbling on the columns in the old building, with a $2 million price tag.
Jacobsen Hunt would also like to be able to use out-of-state contractors for some metal and finish work, Emery said, though there may be local companies capable of doing the work.
“In some cases the Idaho contractors are just taking advantage of the law,” he said.
An Idaho marble contractor bid $750,000 higher for marble work on the project, he said.
Idaho firms are doing the mechanical and electrical work already, Emery said.
The bill would exempt the Capitol construction project from the Idaho First law until 2010 and would be retroactive to last year. It passed the House with six Democrats objecting and is now awaiting a continued hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee.
Boise Rep. Les Bock opposed the bill, arguing that law makers would have to go home and explain, “why we passed a bill that permitted the construction of the People’s house with workers from other states.”
Title 44 of Idaho code deals with labor laws. In the 1890s it was enacted to keep foreign workers off of state projects. Then after the Depression the Idaho First law and a provision to require that state building projects pay prevailing county wages were added. In 1985 the Legislature revisited the law, striking the prevailing wage part.
The Senate State Affairs Committee questioned whether or not the bill, by repealing the entire chapter would allow undocumented workers on the project.
Last year the same committee allowed Public Works to hire a Construction Manager at Risk, another exemption of Idaho code carved out specifically for the project. That means that Jacobsen Hunt, a partnership of two large out-of-state construction companies, is subbing out all of the work, rather than the state. And short of “job sheets” which indicate how many workers are on the job each day, the state is not monitoring the detailed subcontracting enough to even know where the workers are from.
Jacobsen Construction is a Salt Lake City-based company that worked on the Utah Legislature and has built many Mormon temples in the U.S. and Mexico. Hunt Construction Group is based in Scottsdale, AZ and has offices across the U.S.
So far, Emery said he is in compliance with the law, though it is impossible to know for sure. Some workers are hired through a local temp agency office, Labor Ready, and Emery said that even some of those workers are coming in from other states for the work.
Public Works chief Mason said it up to local police to enforce the Idaho First law, a violation of which is a misdemeanor. A Boise police spokeswoman said there was no record of any prosecutions in the city and that a code for the violation does not even exist in their computers.
It is also unclear whether the 95 percent Idaho worker provision applies on a daily basis or over the length of the entire project.
Mason told the Senate committee Wednesday that passage of the exemption is needed as soon as possible. Some of the bids have been delayed and Jacobsen Hunt is withholding a final maximum price for the project until passage of the bill.
Still, Senators asked that the debate continue Friday to get more answers on the application of the bill and particularly on the use of undocumented labor. Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls asked why the Idaho First law couldn’t be repealed permanently for all state projects.
In North Idaho contractors regularly make use of crews from Spokane.
No one has testified against the bill, including the unions. A representative of the carpenters union showed up late Wednesday and Dave Whaley, head of the state AFL-CIO said by phone that the Idaho First law is fair and is a law that should be enforced.
“I’d like to see them try and keep the work here,” Whaley said, though he voiced no opposition in the House committee hearing.
Mason and others pushing for passage of the repeal have repeatedly called the Idaho First law outdated. There are many old or un-enforced laws on the books, including laws against fornication. The repeal of an old law barring sales of liquor on Election Days is currently making its way through the Legislature.
“We probably have too many laws on the books that aren’t being enforced,” said Nampa Rep. Steven Kren, who was asked to carry the bill through the House.
Kren, an electrical contractor who voted against funding the Capitol renovation last year, agreed that state jobs should hire Idaho workers. But he said if the bill does one thing it’s this: “I’m satisfied that they’re trying to accomplish one thing that that’s to keep the Capitol on schedule.”