Prevailing wage foes eyeing ‘all options’ for repeal

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A group seeking to eliminate the state’s prevailing wage construction law says “all options are on the table” as Republican legislators renew their repeal push despite previous opposition from GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.

State Senate Republicans made a statement of priority Wednesday by targeting the prevailing wage with their first new bills of the two-year session. The 1965 law generally requires contractors to pay their workers union-rate wages and benefits on state-financed or state-sponsored projects.

Critics say it inflates costs of taxpayer-funded work on schools and other government buildings, but Snyder has argued that repealing the worker-friendly law would hurt his ongoing push to build the state’s skilled trades workforce.

A coalition led by an association promoting non-union contractors and blessed by Republican leaders failed in an attempt go around Snyder last session. The effort was marred by a sloppy petition drive, but they’re not ruling out another attempt.

“It’s our goal to keep all our options on the table and see exactly how we can get it done,” Jeff Wiggins, state director of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan, told The Detroit News. “We’re very confident.”

While there’s no indication Snyder has changed his mind on the prevailing wage, Wiggins said the appetite for repeal has only grown in the increasingly conservative state House. New House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, both support the effort.

“With continued support in the Senate, who knows what kind of discussions they are going to generate with the governor?” Wiggins said.

Asked whether the group would launch another petition drive if Snyder continues to resist repeal, Wiggins declined to discuss “internal strategy” but said the coalition is assessing the landscape.

Meekhof was more blunt when he first discussed the renewed repeal effort in a Jan. 4 interview with The Detroit News.

“Obviously the governor’s not going to sign it, but I think we need to probably hire a better petition drive company, because the last one didn’t do so well,” Meekhof said. “I think there’s opportunity there yet. ... I firmly believe that taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay more for their buildings than everybody else.”

A committee called “Protecting Michigan Taxpayers” raised more than $1.7 million last election cycle in an attempt to bypass Snyder through a petition drive. If successful, the Republican-led Legislature could have repealed the law without the governor’s signature.

The committee was primarily funded by the ABC Michigan and the Michigan Freedom Fund, a group that initially pushed for right-to-work legislation Snyder signed in 2012.

But the Board of State Canvassers rejected prevailing wage repeal petitions in late 2015 after confirming circulators had collected an estimated 161,781 invalid signatures, including a large number of duplicates.

Protecting Michigan Taxpayers later sued the out-of-state signature collection company it hired, alleging the Silver Bullet firm conducted the “worst petition drive” in state history. The two sides settled the case in November for an undisclosed amount.

Democrats have long fought a prevailing wage repeal as an attack on Michigan workers. Other critics have questioned cost-savings assumptions. Michigan wage growth already trails the national average, Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-Meridian Township, said this week.

“Instead of trying to improve the situation, special interests are trying yet again for the right to pay workers less by getting rid of prevailing wage laws,” Hertel told reporters Tuesday ahead of the governor’s State of the State address. “Cutting wages for Michigan workers won’t improve our state.”

Meekhof sponsored Senate Bill 1 of 2017 to repeal the prevailing wage law. Republican Sens. Peter MacGregor of Rockford and Dave Robertson of Grand Blanc sponsored bills 2 and 3. All three were referred to the Michigan Competitiveness Committee.

The full GOP-led session approved similar bills in May 2015 but the House never put them up for a vote, a move that would have tested Snyder’s veto threat.