Kicking off his general election campaign for governor, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer yesterday sharpened his position on a key labor issue that has come to symbolize Albany gridlock.
Mr. Spitzer said he favors scaling back the state's Wicks Law, a construction mandate dating to 1912 that requires state and local governments to award multiple construction contracts for virtually every public construction project.
The law has long been the bane of general contractors, school boards, and fiscal groups, who say it lards projects with inefficiencies that inflate construction costs by as much as 30%.
Perennial efforts to have it repealed are thwarted by mechanical trade unions, a powerful lobbying force in Albany. In fact, it's a time-honored tradition for governors of each party to insert into the state budget a clause to rescind the law, even though they know legislators will eventually cut it out.
Instead of allowing a general contractor to coordinate the work, as is the case in the private sector, New York government entities must issue separate contracts for plumbing, electrical, and heating/ventilation/air conditioning, and a general contractor for projects costing more than $50,000, a threshold that hasn't changed since the 1960s despite decades of inflation.
The attorney general, a Democrat who has staked out moderate positions on a host of issues in the governor's race, said he supported raising the threshold, but he did not specify the amount.
He stopped short of saying he favored its repeal, an action advocated by his Republican opponent, John Faso, a former assemblyman.
Critics of the law say the splitting up of the contracts adds to paperwork, requires more administrative staff, and causes more change orders and confusion during the construction. They point to a 1999 study commissioned by the New York City School Construction Authority, which is one of the few entities in New York exempted by the law, showing that the exemption cut the average construction time in half and saved the city $192 million.
The trade unions say the law protects them from being squeezed by general contractors looking for the lowest bidder, and minimizes corruption and cronyism in the bidding process.
Mr. Spitzer's stance would appear to strike a compromise. He said he would raise the threshold to "gain the efficiencies that could be garnered by having a" general contractor, but would "ensure there's payment made to the subcontractors who were often being penalized by the structure that created the existing statute."
General contractors want the threshold raised to $1 million from $50,000.
In the past, Mr. Spitzer has said he would "reform" the Wicks Law but has been hesitant to give specifics. The stance he took yesterday got a favorable review from legislative leaders in both houses, as well as the president of the New York State Building & Construction Trades Council, Edward Malloy, who represents an umbrella group of trade unions. Each said they would support a higher threshold as long as it came with a project labor agreement that would require contractors to use union labor.
"Basically what they are doing is swapping one costly mandate for another," the executive director of General Building Contractors of New York State in Albany, Jeffrey Zogg, said.
Mr. Spitzer made his remarks at a press conference in front of City Hall, where he endorsed Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic nominee for attorney general.
The day after winning the Democratic primary against Thomas Suozzi by a 4-to-1 margin, Mr. Spitzer held a $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser with a group of builders and later met privately with a gathering of chief executive officers at a Midtown hotel in Manhattan.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Mr. Spitzer, the overwhelming front-runner in the race, unleashed a rare attack on Mr. Faso, who has accused the attorney general of launching "phony" investigations against a former New York Stock Exchange chairman, Richard Grasso, and former chief executive of AIG, Maurice "Hank" Greenberg.
"It's kind of amazing that John Faso lines up with defendants who have essentially taken improperly so much from not-for-profits," Mr. Spitzer said, referring to his lawsuit alleging that Mr. Grasso's $200 million compensation package was excessively high. "He wants to argue the other side. He's a big time lobbyist. He can do it."
After leaving his post as minority leader of the Assembly in 2002, Mr. Faso joined Manatt, Phelps & Phillips as a registered lobbyist and lawyer. Mr. Faso is no longer listed as a lobbyist.