by Steve Fair
Last week former Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Brenda Reneau passed away. Brenda served as Labor Commissioner from 1995-2007. I met Brenda Reneau in early 1994 when she started campaigning for office. We immediately hit it off. She was smart, candid and didn’t take herself too seriously. When I ran for State Senate in 2000, Brenda was a trusted advisor to my campaign and a close confidant and friend. She keynoted two successful fundraisers for my campaign. I will miss her personally, but Brenda Reneau’s legacy is how she conducted herself in office.
What Brenda accomplished during her tenure as Oklahoma Labor Commissioner was significant. It has saved and continues to save Oklahoma taxpayers millions of dollars. Reneau successfully fought the ‘prevailing wage’ fraud schemes of organized labor in the state. ‘Prevailing wage’ aka the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 was a US Federal law that required public works projects pay the local prevailing wages to laborers and mechanics. Many states, including Oklahoma, mirrored the Davis-Bacon Act and passed local ‘prevailing wage’ laws for their state funded projects. The problem was that organized labor was fraudulently setting the ‘prevailing wage.’ Before Reneau was elected, previous Oklahoma Labor Commissioners just rubber stamped the higher rate and Oklahoma taxpayers paid the bill.Reneau brought suit on behalf of Oklahoma taxpayers challenging prevailing wage. She fought it to the Oklahoma Supreme Court and in October of 1995, the court agreed with her and declared the state’s little Davis-Bacon Act unconstitutional. The ruling reverberated across the country. Other states begin to look at their prevailing wage laws.
In his 2005 book, Freedom in the Workplace, Samuel Cook, called Reneau, ‘one brave and honest government official who exhibited uncommon courage.’ The Wall Street Journal published this editorial in 1996:
“Economists have shown that Davis-Bacon freezes out many lower skilled workers, primarily black or Hispanic, from jobs on these projects. What hasn't been known until now is that many Davis-Bacon prevailing wages appears to have been calculated using fictitious projects, ghost workers and companies set up to pay artificially high wages. Taxpayers may be paying top dollar for construction projects but getting fewer schools prisons and bridges built than they should.
Brenda Reneau, Oklahoma Secretary of Labor, found that many of the wage survey form submitted to the US Department of Labor to calculate federal wage rates in her state were simply wrong. In one instance, records show that an underground storage tank was built using 20 plumbers and pipefitters making $21.05 per hour, however no such project was ever built. In another case several asphalt machine operators were reported to have constructed a parking lot at an IRS building and they had been paid $15 an hour, when in reality no asphalt operators were used to build the concrete lot.
Ms. Reneau said she was thwarted for months in efforts to learn whether union officials or contractors submitted the bogus forms. She notes that federal labor officials completely stonewalled her by claiming much of the information fell into the same category as ‘trade secrets.’ "They publicly denied the fraud and resisted our investigation," she maintains. Back home she's been threatened with physical harm for troubles "I've been told my life is worth about $1000 and my legs could be broken for $500," she says.
Sadly, the editorial in the WSJ went unnoticed to many in Oklahoma, but those who were paying attention understood the significance of Reneau’s courage. Reneau was taking on powerful forces and standing in the gap for taxpayers. Brenda called the Davis-Bacon Act “a welfare program that allowed unions to lie to federal officials and to steal from taxpayers.”
All Oklahomans owe Labor Commissioner Brenda Reneau a true debt of gratitude. She had the courage to not only expose fraud, but she had the tenacity and strength to do something about it. She was a rare person. May her legacy be one that is never forgotten by Oklahoma. She was one of a kind. We need more elected officials like Brenda Reneau.