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Showdown looms for prevailing wage repeal plan

A proposed measure to repeal Michigan's prevailing wage law would affect road construction and other public building projects in the state.

Lansing — A proposal to repeal Michigan’s prevailing wage law could be taken up by lawmakers as early as next week, after a state board approved Friday the certification of signatures.

The Board of State Canvassers unanimously approved a ballot measure that would repeal the 1965 law that requires contractors to pay union wages and benefits on state-funded projects.

Republican lawmakers have said they would approve the proposal themselves rather than allow voters to decide on the proposal in November. If it becomes law, the repeal measure would increase competition for public construction contracts, potentially lower building costs and possibly alter pay levels for construction workers.

Pro-repeal groups have said current law inflates construction costs that are ultimately borne by taxpayers. Prevailing wage supporters have said a repeal would lower wages and limit training programs.

Some union officials said Friday said eliminating the prevailing wage law would drive the best workers to other states, damage the quality of state construction projects, and inhibit job training and safety.

“Repealing prevailing wage will hurt taxpayers, with cut-rate contractors doing poor work and leaving town, leaving Michigan communities holding the bag,” said Geno Alessandrini, business manager for the Michigan Laborers District Council, in the statement.

But Protecting Michigan Taxpayers President Jeff Wiggins said he is confident the Legislature would vote next week to repeal the law.

“For decades, the notions of fair, open competition and fiscal responsibility in public construction have been ignored due to this costly government mandate,” Wiggins said in the statement. “Thankfully, the voices of almost 400,000 Michigan citizens who signed the petition and the millions more who support the effort to repeal this costly law will be heard.”

Democrats Jeannette Bradshaw, left, and Julie Maturak initially opposed approving a measure repealing the state's prevailing wage law for the November ballot, but the state Court of Appeals ordered them to pass the measure.

Senate Republicans, who enjoy a large majority, already approved a repeal measure in 2015 and are expected to do so again by wide margins. All eyes are on the House, where some labor-friendly Republicans have been on the fence.

House Speaker Tom Leonard said Thursday he expects both chambers to approve the repeal measure by the end of next week. He declined to say how many Republicans plan to vote for the initiative but said he is confident it will pass the House.

“I have had a caucus on it,” Leonard, R-DeWitt, told The Detroit News. “I believe the votes are there, and that’s about as far as I’m going.”

Democrats argue that repealing the prevailing wage law would amount to a forced pay cut for Michigan construction workers, and House Minority Leader Sam Singh said thinks acting on the measure could hurt Republicans in elections this fall.

“We’ve made the case to Republicans,” said Singh, D-East Lansing. “We know we have a shortage in skilled trades workers, and at the same time you’re going to do this and stifle the wages of people in the skilled trades? It makes absolutely no sense.”

Leonard said he disagrees that the repeal initiative is an attempt to cut wages.

“I believe that’s a false narrative,” he said. “This is about protecting our taxpayers, but it’s also about allowing all of our hard workers to compete, not just a few.”

Leonard said he’s talked to smaller contractors who do not use union labor and said they’ve told him prevailing wage rules disadvantage them in the bidding process.

“I believe the best thing for our workers is to allow the free market to do its job and allow it to work, and that’s exactly what would happen if we pass this,” he said.

Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, opposes repealing the state’s prevailing wage law, arguing it could hurt his efforts to attract workers to careers in the skilled trades. But Snyder said this week he is not lobbying lawmakers against voting on the initiated legislation, which he could not veto because it was initiated by petition drive.

“I’m happy to share my opinion, and I’ll continue to do that, but in terms of actively working on the issue, I’ve got the budget, the Marshall Plan and other legislative priorities,” Snyder said. “I respect the process, and I think that’s why they did that process — because they knew I wouldn’t sign it.”

Friday's action was a reversal for state board's two Democratic members, who rejected the measure and caused a 2-2 deadlock in late April. Opposition groups had argued the petition should be discarded because some circulators listed false addresses, including post office boxes, motels and land bank-owned residences.

The pro-repeal Protecting Michigan Taxpayers appealed the board’s deadlocked decision, and the state Court of Appeals ruled inaccurate circulator signatures do not invalidate the entire petition.

The appeals judges ordered the board to approve the petition, and the state Supreme Court refused to take up the case.

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