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CALIFORNIA

Judge Calls Wilson's Wage Cut Initiative Out of Bounds

June 03, 1997|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dealing what might be a killer blow to a controversial economic initiative by Gov. Pete Wilson, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge ruled Monday that Wilson's administration overstepped its authority in trying to cut the wages paid to laborers on public works projects.

The decision by Judge Cecily Bond, a major victory for organized labor, invalidated the administration's plan to reduce the state's so-called prevailing wage for construction workers.

Administration officials have touted the initiative as a way to save taxpayers $200 million a year. They also said it would bring California's prevailing-wage rules in line with those of the federal government and most other states.

Union leaders have branded the plan as part of a continuing assault by the Wilson administration on protections dear to union workers. They argued that the proposed prevailing-wage changes would undercut the ability of building-crafts workers to earn decent pay.

In her decision, however, Bond steered away from the political arguments. Instead, she zeroed in on the Wilson administration's effort to achieve, through regulation, changes that have already been rejected by the California Legislature.

Bond wrote in her 30-page opinion that she was invalidating the challenged regulations "not because they represent a good policy choice or a poor one." Rather, she said, in trying to adopt the changes through regulation, Lloyd W. Aubry Jr., a Wilson appointee who resigned last month as director of the Department of Industrial Relations, "acted as a legislator by making that choice, and he does not have the power to do so."

John Duncan, the acting director of the agency, said Bond's decision will be appealed. Still, he suggested that Wilson might be willing to negotiate a compromise with Democrats in the Legislature to try to achieve some of the reforms.

"We're in the budget process right now, and these issues could be put on the table," he said.

But given the Democrats' steadfast opposition to the proposal, a compromise appears unlikely.

Lawyers for the union groups and unionized contractors challenging the prevailing-wage cut were ebullient over the ruling.

"This was a major part of the Wilson agenda for change, and now it's been ruled beyond his authority to do so. If he wanted to do this, he needed to go to the Legislature," said union lawyer Stephen P. Berzon.

The proposed prevailing-wage cut has been on hold since early May, when unions won a court order temporarily barring the change pending Monday's ruling.

The decision came as officials nervously await court and administrative agency rulings this week on two other workplace initiatives pushed by the Wilson administration and being contested by organized labor. One is a plan to waive daily overtime rules; the other is a proposed standard to reduce repetitive-motion injuries, an initiative decried by labor leaders as woefully inadequate.

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