Poll: Voters want to keep prevailing wage law

Chad Livengood and Gary Heinlein
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A group seeking to repeal Michigan's 50-year-old prevailing wage law might find its biggest support among Republican state lawmakers: A new poll suggests likely voters want to keep union-level wages for government construction projects.

More than 59 percent of likely voters support maintaining Michigan's prevailing wage, a more than 2-1 advantage over the 25 percent of voters who want the law scrapped, according to a statewide poll released exclusively to The Detroit News and WDIV-TV. The law requires construction firms on publicly funded projects to pay the union-scale or prevailing wage in the area.

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive has an intense discussion with Sen. David Robertson, R-Grand Blanc before the Michigan Senate passed "Prevailing Wage" legislation last month at the Capitol in Lansing.

"I don't think this issue has risen to a level where a lot of voters are aware of it," said Richard Czuba of the Glengariff Group Inc., which conducted the poll. "Even strong Republicans are split on this issue."

The June 9-11 survey of 600 likely voters found self-identifying "strong" Republicans are narrowly divided, with 42.3 percent in favor of keeping the law and 40.5 percent supporting a repeal.

The poll also found nearly 77 percent of Michigan voters oppose an Indiana-style Religious Freedom Restoration Act that critics say would give business owners the right to refuse service to gays and lesbians.

The religious freedom legislation remains stalled in the Senate; the Legislature could get rid of the prevailing wage law by year's end.

Last month, a conservative group called Protecting Michigan Taxpayers won approval from a state panel to begin circulating petitions for a voter-initiated law that would eliminate prevailing wage requirements for construction of public schools and local government buildings.

Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan is leading the campaign to repeal the prevailing wage and the trade group's president, Chris Fisher, acknowledges the issue remains foreign to some voters.

"Our data finds that a super majority of people don't know what it is," Fisher said Monday. "... As we explain what prevailing wage, the more people know about it, the more people dislike it."

Democrats resoundingly oppose repeal of mandated wage levels favored by their allies in organized labor. But independents also reject the idea, with 59 percent in favor of maintaining the law and 20 percent favoring repeal.

Czuba said voters could be confusing prevailing wage with the state's minimum wage. The minimum wage is associated with low-skilled jobs, while prevailing wages are established for skilled trades workers, often above the hourly rates paid by non-union construction firms.

Protecting Michigan Taxpayers needs a minimum 252,523 valid voter signatures for the prevailing wage repeal to be placed before the Legislature.

"Getting signatures in this day in age is not a problem — you buy those," said Czuba, referencing the practice of hiring paid workers to gather voter signatures.

Voter opposition to repealing the prevailing wage may be a moot issue because proponents intend to finish collecting signatures by the end of August and take their petitions to the Legislature this fall.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, who backs the idea, "does not base his decision on polls, but rather on the district he represents," spokeswoman Amber McCann said Monday. "Repeal of prevailing wage saves tax dollars. Ultimately, I think many voters appreciate efforts by Lansing to save tax dollars."

Under the state constitution, a voter-initiated law needs a simple majority vote of both houses of the Legislature and can bypass the governor. Gov. Rick Snyder has openly opposed repealing the law, saying it could harm his efforts to get more young people to chose careers in the skilled trades.

The Glengariff Group poll, which was not commissioned by any group or news organization, also tested several hot-button gay rights issues with likely 2016 general election voters.

Nearly 56 percent of likely voters support same-sex marriage, mirroring results the polling firm found in 2012 and 2014 surveys, Czuba said.

More than 61 percent of respondents said they would support having the state of Michigan recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on whether Michigan's gay marriage ban is constitutional.

The poll found 77 percent of likely voters oppose a proposed law that would require the government to have a "compelling justification" to burden people's ability to exercise their religious freedoms. The legislation known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is stalled in a Senate committee.

And 77 percent of respondents support expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include anti-discrimination protections in housing, employment and public accommodations for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

"This agenda of picking and choosing which Michigan citizens deserve rights is not what our citizens want," said Senate Democratic Leader Jim Ananich of Flint. "They've passed a RFRA-like adoption act. I think the public is going to be disappointed Michigan is moving in that direction."