West Virginia Senate backs payroll secrecy

By MICHAEL VIRTANEN, Associated Press
Payroll records on public works projects, including road reconstruction funded by $1.6 billion from last year’s voter-approved bonding, would be kept secret from the public and news media under legislation passed by West Virginia’s Senate on Thursday.
Supporters said it will protect the personal information of workers at private construction companies, which will still report payroll information to the Division of Labor that auditors can check for West Virginia hiring.
Critics said it would hide who’s working on the road jobs, whether the companies are hiring 75 percent West Virginians as required, and how much they’re paid.
The bill now goes to the House.
Sen. Robert Karnes, an Upshur County Republican and co-sponsor, said it also protects a contractor’s competitive edge.
“This would apply to names, addresses, certain other certified payroll documents,” said Sen. Edward Gaunch, a Kanawha County Republican who chairs the Government Organization Committee. “The second part of the bill deals with what is known as proprietary material. This would cover the wage portion of the documents.”
The bill passed 21-12 with all Republicans present for it. Several said it protects workers from possible identity theft since certified payroll information includes names, addresses and Social Security numbers.
However, Sen. Corey Palumbo, a Charleston Democrat, said the Freedom of Information Act already protects sensitive personal information such as Social Security numbers from disclosure.
All 12 minority Democrats voted against it.
The legislation undercuts taxpayers’ First Amendment right to know who’s working on the road projects and getting paid with their dollars, said Sen. Mike Woelfel, a Charleston Democrat. “Why would you limit the people’s right to know? … Transparency is how we uncover fraud and waste in government and people who don’t pay their taxes.”
Sen. Glenn Jeffries, a Putnam County Democrat, predicted corporations will hide their wages and may even hide their employees “so we won’t know where they came from.”
The bill would apply to records submitted pursuant to the West Virginia Jobs Act, meant to boost state employment, which says state construction contractors on projects exceeding $500,000 must hire 75 percent of their workers from the local labor market. That’s defined as all West Virginia’s 55 counties “as well as any county outside of West Virginia, if any portion of that county is within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the state border,” according to the Division of Labor.