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Wind bill’s labor, wage provisions OK’d

ANNAPOLIS — A written opinion from the Maryland Office of the Attorney General says controversial labor and wage provisions in Gov. Martin O’Malley’s offshore wind legislation are legal.

The letter would appear to clear the way for a favorable vote in the Senate Finance Committee after two years of deadlock.

Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, a Charles County Democrat who chairs the committee, said he had planned to have the panel vote on the bill on Thursday. But he postponed the vote to wait for advice from the General Assembly’s lawyer, Dan Friedman.

In a letter to Del. Kathy Szeliga, R-Baltimore and Harford counties, who made the formal inquiry, Friedman wrote that there was no legal problem with the legislature instructing the Public Service Commission to consider criteria that mirror the requirements of a Project Labor Agreement for public works in evaluating developers’ bids to build 40 wind turbines at least 10 miles off the coast of Ocean City.

Senate Bill 275 says the PSC must consider whether a developer plans to use skilled labor paid at the prevailing wage when awarding the contract. While state law mandating prevailing wages for public works would not apply to the proposed wind-turbine field because it would be a private development, Friedman said the state can consider whether developers plan to pay a wage consistent with the prevailing rate.

“This requirement is not mandatory; it is simply one of 13 evaluative criteria that the PSC must consider in awarding approval,” Friedman wrote. He used the same logic to defend a provision that calls for skilled union labor to be used on the project.

“The act does not specify what types of agreements must be entered into, much less their contents,” Friedman wrote. “Rather, the act allows the applicant to decide, in its business judgment, to what extent to enter into agreements with labor unions.”

Mandating that developers abide by the state’s Minority Business Enterprises requirement is also constitutional, Friedman wrote.

Senate Republicans have said that by including the evaluative criteria in the bill, the state is effectively telling private business how to operate. Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, R-Carroll and Howard, was the most vocal opponent of the measure in the Finance Committee, and criticized it during a breakfast meeting of conservative business advocates Thursday morning.

But the bill appears destined for approval this year. The Senate panel took no action last year on similar legislation, despite the House of Delegates’ easily passing its version.

To force movement of the bill, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, changed the panel’s roster last month to ensure the legislation would move to the full Senate, where 24 members are co-sponsors. Only 24 votes are needed to pass most legislation in the Senate, but aides expect the yea votes for SB 275 to be higher.

The House of Delegates has already given preliminary approval to its version of O’Malley’s wind bill, which would force electricity companies to buy a certain amount of offshore wind energy, raising the cost of business’ electricity bills by up to 1.5 percent. Households would see their bills increase no more than $1.50 a month.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said the chamber will hold a final vote on the bill Friday, a day later than originally planned. It’s expected to pass with ease.

Minor amendments made by the House Economic Matters Committee — adding two members to a board that would advise the Maryland Energy Administration how to spend $10 million earmarked to help small and minority-owned businesses work on offshore wind projects and another that would call for a study of creating a clean energy degree program at a historically black Maryland college — will be tacked on in the Finance Committee, Middleton said.

“We’ll do the same things to get two bills in the same posture,” he said.