Snyder, legislative leaders clash on prevailing wage

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder drew the first battle line of his second term with Republican lawmakers Thursday, making clear he doesn't want legislation repealing Michigan's prevailing wage law on his desk.

"It's not something I supported in the first four years as governor, and I don't intend to change my position on that," Snyder told reporters.

The Republican governor's comments came after two top GOP legislative leaders announced eliminating Michigan's 50-year-old prevailing wage law would be their top priority in the new year.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said Thursday he and two other senators will introduce a three-bill package Tuesday that would repeal laws requiring union-scale wages for building schools and government facilities.

The law artificially inflates wages on government projects by raising them to the highest union level, increasing costs and reducing the amount of road repairs and other services state government can provide, Meekhof said.

Meekhof, who became the Senate's top leader Wednesday, has not been shy about his intentions to tackle the prevailing wage law — two years after the Legislature made Michigan a right-to-work state.

"It has big impact on our local governments and school systems when they go out and bond projects and build," he said in a recent interview with The Detroit News. "I think it's something we need to do."

But union supporters criticized the move, saying the law creates good-paying jobs and boosts the economy.

"I think we should be focusing on putting money in the pockets of Michigan workers and families, not taking it out," Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said Thursday.

House Floor Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, and two other Republican representatives plan to introduce a similar package of bills when the House of Representatives reconvenes Tuesday.

"Paying inflated costs for local school building projects does not achieve this goal," state Rep. Brad Jacobsen, R-Oxford, said in a statement. "This proposal will free up more money for classrooms by lowering the cost of construction projects."

Michigan State AFL-CIO President Karla Swift said the prevailing wage law protects workers "from unscrupulous contractors" and contended higher wages boost productivity, leading to "lower construction costs."

"With paychecks stagnant or falling for too many families, the last thing Michigan politicians should be doing is pushing legislation that would further cut wages," Swift said.

The Senate and House bills will be the first legislation introduced in the 98th Legislature, which assembled for the first time Wednesday.

There is some division among Republicans over ditching the prevailing wage. Sen. Mike Kowall, the new majority floor leader, said he opposes repeal.

"When you talk to contractors, and it's mostly big contractors that are affected by this, they just shake their heads and say it's not even a factor in their decision-making," said Kowall, R-White Lake Township. "But it does help them bring in better qualified people."

The savings expected by proponents of eliminating prevailing wages are often inflated, Kowall said.

"I've heard numbers that, geez, we could cure the national debt from what people are coming up with," Kowall told The Detroit News.

Some GOP lawmakers wanted to pursue a repeal of the prevailing wage law during last month's lame-duck session. But Snyder signaled he had no interest as he tried to forge a consensus with Republicans and Democrats on a road funding deal.

Last month, House Minority Leader Tim Greimel suggested a deal was reached with Snyder on the controversial issue, but he would not elaborate.

"I'm confident that the overall arrangement that we reached will safeguard important Democratic priorities moving forward, including maintaining the state's prevailing wage law on the books," Greimel told The News.

Snyder sidestepped questions Thursday about whether he promised Democrats that he'd veto a repeal of the prevailing wage law.

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