Soundings

Ray Ackerman
Gutless in Albany
Autumn 1994

In July, as the legislative session was winding down in Albany, it looked as if the State Legislature was on the verge of reforming the Wicks Law, a 73-year-old provision that, most observers agree, has inflated the cost and hindered the quality of public works in New York State. But in the final minutes of the session, the state AFL-CIO intervened and scuttled an agreement between Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders. Wicks had been saved.

The case against the law is overwhelming. By requiring at least four independent contractors on each project, the law diffuses responsibility and causes delays and cost overruns. The beneficiaries are the specialized contractors—plumbers, electricians, and heating and ventilation specialists—that are guaranteed contracts under the law. The owners of these firms and their workers, many represented by the AFL-CIO, use their substantial clout in the State Legislature to preserve Wicks.

Everyone who follows construction in New York State knows a litany of Wicks horror stories. Example: a Bronx housing project that finished a year behind schedule and $500,000 over budget because two contractors couldn't agree in November whose job it was to drain the plumbing system. The pipes froze in December, causing extensive damage.

Systematically documenting the case against Wicks is a recent study by a team of economists headed by Princeton's Orley Ashenfelter. The study found that the Wicks Law increased costs by an average of 13 percent. Buildings constructed under the law took an average of 15 months longer to complete than they otherwise would have, and they had more defects.

The study found that repeal of the Wicks Law would have saved more than $250 million each year in New York City's capital budget alone, while delivering better buildings faster. Even with such a golden opportunity, New York's political leadership caved in to special-interest pleading.

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