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The needle & the damage done

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Contact Colin McNickle (412-320-7836 or cmcnickle@tribweb.com).

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Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

It was uncomfortable to watch Pennsylvania Labor & Industry Secretary Julia Hearthway fidget in her seat, if not in her mind, as she was asked about her views on the prevailing wage, right-to-work laws, the right of teachers to strike and a possible gasoline tax increase. The needle and the thread came out. But the stitch was not very becoming. And the damage was done.

Ms. Hearthway visited the Trib on Thursday, primarily to argue for more complete reportage on the commonwealth's employment picture. When the statistics are taken in aggregate, versus cherry-picking a singular category, she argued, Pennsylvania's employment/recovery picture is far more encouraging. And she has a point.

Reporting, say, only the state's 1.8 percent jobs gain between January 2011 and August 2013 — and how that's lower than six comparable benchmark states — but not also reporting how Pennsylvania's 69.6 percent “recovery percentage” (from jobs lost in The Great Recession) is the highest among those comparables, leaves an inaccurate impression.

Fair enough. But aggregate statistics also show Pennsylvania's rate of recovery has slowed markedly. And do also note that the L&I sec's visit to the Trib was the department's first ever nearly three years into Gov. Tom Corbett's administration and came as Democrats have begun seizing on such stats in advance of next year's gubernatorial race. A reasonable cynic could surmise that the Hearthway visit was political.

Be that as it may, one of the labor secretary's missions is to promote Pennsylvania as a good place to do business. Which prompted the discussion to turn to other areas.

Take the prevailing wage, which actually is a higher-than-market wage paid to union contractors on government construction projects. Despite organized labor's propaganda, prevailing wages exceed market wages by between 30 percent and 75 percent, according to the Pennsylvania Association of Boroughs. Total construction costs are increased on average by 20 percent, U.S. Census data show, increasing taxpayer costs by up to $2 billion annually.

But Secretary Hearthway hardly was nonplused. In fact, she seemed to accept the government-sanctioned gouging as a guarantor of family-sustaining wages versus the tribute-paying in service of labor extortion that it really is.

And it was the same with the right-to-work issue, never mind that compulsory-union states traditionally share the basement ward of economic sickness while right-to-work states paint the portraits of economic health.

Same, too, for public employee strikes. But how a state that often leads the nation in teacher strikes is attractive to outsiders should be beyond anybody.

And then there's the proposed massive increase in the wholesale tax on gasoline and diesel that would give Pennsylvania the highest gas tax in the nation. Hearthway disputes the notion that most, if not all, of the hike would be passed on to the consumer. That would include those small businesses she so professes require relief from regulations and taxes.

Hearthway declined to say how she personally felt about such issues, noting she was visiting in her official capacity and, thus, speaking for the state. Which is frozen comfort for a state in which Republicans control the governorship and both houses of the General Assembly.

Colin McNickle is Trib Total Media's director of editorial pages (412-320-7836 or cmcnickle@tribweb.com).

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