Despite the California Constitution section which guarantees California’s 121 charter cities the authority over their  municipal business, Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 7, which will deprive these cities of state funding and financial assistance for projects if they do not pay the prevailing wage. The bill was a classic special interest sponsored bill, sponsored by the State Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO.

What does SB 7 do?

SB 7 compels charter cities to require prevailing wages on local projects they construct with local funds by withholding all state contracting funds from non-compliant cities. The result could mean that local governments simply forgo important infrastructure projects because they cannot afford to fund them.

SB 7, however, is arguably unconstitutional. In 2012, the California Supreme court confirmed, in State Building and Construction Trades Council of California AFL-CIO vs. City of Vista, that California charter cities would be able to maintain the autonomy to decide whether to pay prevailing wages for local construction projects. It was a step in the direction of the free market for local governments.

What is going on in California if the Legislature and governor ignore the constitution?

According to Russell Johnson, Associated Building and Contractors, Inc., the California Supreme Court decision meant that charter cities can operate as they see fit. “The Court said, ‘Autonomy with regard to the expenditure of public funds lies at the heart of what it means to be an independent governmental entity.’ We can think of nothing that is of greater municipal concern than how a city’s tax dollars will be spent; nor anything which could be of less interest to taxpayers of other jurisdictions,” Johnson told me in June.

“Whether a charter city pays prevailing wage with local funds is up to each city and not the Legislature,” Johnson said.

Charter Cities

Of the 482 cities in California, 121 are charter cities; the rest are “general law cities” over which the Legislature exercises more control. But not all charter cities avail themselves of the prevailing wage exemption. There are 70 cities with no exemption, 10 cities with a partial exemption, and 41 charter cities with full exemption, according to the California Construction Compliance Group.

“In recent years, city councils have proposed charters and voters have approved charters in order to circumvent costly and unnecessary state mandates imposed by the California State Legislature on local governments,” Kevin Dayton wrote yesterday in the Flash Report. “Many of these mandates are pushed into state law by union lobbyists.”

“To stifle this little local rebellion, State Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Republican Senator Anthony Cannella introduced a bill in 2013 sponsored by the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California,” Dayton said. “Senate Bill 7 cuts off state construction funding for charter cities that set contracting policies that deviate from state-mandated prevailing wage laws.”

“Supporters of Senate Bill 7 say it ‘encourages’ charter cities to abide by state prevailing wage law” Dayton said. “Others suggest that the term ‘encourages’ is somewhat Orwellian, as the term ‘punishes’ would be more accurate.”

Cross-posted at CalWatchDog.