Business-backed group pushes repeal of wage law

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A business-backed group with a history of raising millions of dollars is adding muscle to the legislative push for repeal of Michigan’s prevailing wage law with a petition drive that could start as early as next week.

Protecting Michigan Taxpayers plans to use Michigan’s initiated law process to overcome a possible veto from Gov. Rick Snyder of current legislation to end the 50-year-old wage mandate requiring union-scale wages on construction of schools and other public buildings.

Snyder has said he’s not in favor of dumping the state’s prevailing wage law, but Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, is leading a legislative repeal effort. His repeal legislation was the first Senate bill filed this year.

“We’re doing this because we believe we have to votes in the House and Senate,” said Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan President Chris Fisher. “One way or another, we’ll be guaranteed to get an act” ending Michigan’s prevailing wage.

The organization, whose influential and well-heeled allies have ranged from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce to Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, is the same group that raised $18 million and defeated a 2012 union-backed ballot effort to prevent eventual passage of Michigan’s right-to-work law.

After voters rejected the unions’ ballot measure 57 percent-43 percent, the Legislature’s Republican majority hastily passed the right-to-work law during its 2012 lame-duck session. Snyder, who for months had said a right-to-work law wasn’t on his agenda, changed his mind and signed it.

Now, Protecting Michigan Taxpayers has submitted proposed petition forms and language to end the prevailing wage.

They’re up for consideration Tuesday by the Board of State Canvassers, along with proposed petitions from a group called the Michigan Cannabis Coalition aimed toward a ballot proposal to legalize marijuana use and possession by adults.

The group aims to pick up enough signatures to put an initiated law proposal before the Legislature by fall, Fisher said. The group needs 253,000-plus registered voter signatures.

Unlike regular legislation, citizen-initiated proposals are veto-proof and become law as soon as they Legislature approves them. They don’t require the signature of the governor.

The group is following a strategy used by Right to Life of Michigan in 2013 to help lawmakers overcome a Snyder veto and pass a law preventing companies from including abortion coverage in their group health insurance for employees. The law says coverage can be offered only as an insurance rider the employee pays out of pocket.

Under Michigan’s petition initiative process, a group’s signatures are turned in and certified by the state canvassers. Lawmakers then have 40 days to pass the proposal.

If no action is taken or it isn’t passed, the petitioner’s proposal goes on the ballot in the state’s next general election -- in this case, the November 2016 presidential election.

“But we’re not aiming for an election,” Fisher said.

Along with the signature-collection effort by Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, lawmakers in the House are considering prevailing wage repeal bills the Senate passed a week ago. The three bills passed on 22-15 votes with five Republicans joining the 10 Democrats voting against them.

House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, favors repeal of the prevailing wage law, but its prospects for House passage aren’t yet clear.

Fisher, who testified in favor of the legislation at a Senate committee hearing, cited a 2013 study by the Anderson Economic Group of East Lansing that concluded prevailing wage mandates cost taxpayers and schools an extra $224 million a year.

Michigan is one of only six states whose prevailing wage laws are based exclusively on union scales, driving up the cost of new schools and other public buildings, Fisher said.

Eighteen states have no prevailing wage law; others base such laws on a blend of union and non-union pay.

Repeal opponents say the Anderson study is flawed. The prevailing wage law levels the playing field on publicly funded projects, supports skilled trades training and upholds middle-class wages, they maintain.

Opponents of the repeal include unions and the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, representing the heavy construction industry involved in road building.

In its 2012 ballot effort against the union proposal, Protecting Michigan Taxpayers collected $4.4 million from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce; $2.4 million from the Michigan Chamber PAC; $3.5 million from the Grand Rapids-based Michigan Alliance for Business Growth, $500,000 each from Helen and Richard DeVos; and $1 million from Adelson.