Prevailing wage foes prepare new petition drive

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – A pro-business group pushing to repeal Michigan’s prevailing wage law has drafted new petition language and is seeking advance approval from the state to begin collecting signatures.

The Board of State Canvassers will meet Thursday to consider the form of a petition submitted Protecting Michigan Taxpayers that would lift a 1965 law that generally requires contractors to pay their workers union-rate wages and benefits on state-financed or state-sponsored projects.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pay more for a project in the public sector than what it costs in the private sector,” said Jeff Wiggins, president of the petition drive committee and state director for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan.

The committee raised more than $1.7 million for a similar effort two years ago but failed to advance its initiated legislation after paid circulators gathered an estimated 161,781 invalid signatures, including many duplicates.

Republican state legislative leaders want to repeal the prevailing wage law, which they argue inflates the cost of taxpayer-funded construction projects. But GOP Gov. Rick Snyder has threatened to veto any legislation that reaches his desk, suggesting it could hurt his efforts to build interest in skilled trades careers.

A successful petition drive would allow prevailing wage foes to bypass Snyder. With majority support from state legislators, the initiated legislation could become law without the governor’s signature or statewide voter approval.

“It’s hard to understand why people would want to have fewer skilled trades workers in our state, but that’s the ultimate result of cutting pay for hard-working men and women,” said Dave Waymire, a spokesman for Protect Michigan Jobs, a labor and trades committee formed to fight the prior petition drive in 2015.

The state board on Thursday is also expected to consider the form of a petition from a group seeking to put a marijuana legalization proposal on the statewide ballot in 2018.

A third petition submitted for review ahead of circulation would propose making the Michigan Legislature part-time, limiting legislator pay and retirement benefits.

The 2015 prevailing wage petition drive was primarily backed by the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan and the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative group initially formed to fight for right-to-work legislation Snyder signed in 2012.

Wiggins said the committee plans to use a different petition gathering firm this year but that the proposed language is largely the same. Organizers expect to start collecting signatures this summer.

“We’re ready to hit the ground running,” he said. “It’s one of those things that has been in the pipeline for a while now.”

Executive Director Tony Daunt said Monday the Michigan Freedom Fund “has always been supportive” of the prevailing wage repeal effort “and will continue to be so.”

The initiated legislation would repeal Michigan’s prevailing wage law and direct $75,000 in state funds to the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs “for the purpose of implementing and communication information about the repeal.”

The $75,000 price tag would also make the proposal immune from a referendum repeal. The Michigan Constitution prohibits voters from overturning laws that make appropriations.

Petition drive organizers would need to collect at least 252,523 valid voter signatures within a 180-day window to put the measure in front of the Republican-led Legislature, which would have 40 days to approve it.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, and House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, support repealing the prevailing wage law. Democrats have opposed past proposals, arguing they would hurt workers by removing guaranteed wages and benefits on government construction projects.

“It’s nice to get the vocal support we’ve been getting from a lot of the elected officials in the Legislature,” Wiggins said, noting Senate Republicans proposed prevailing wage repeal in their first bills of the 2017-18 session. “I don’t think we can really get much more indication as to where the Legislature stands on this and their willingness to take it on than that.”