Prevailing wage repeal signatures face extra scrutiny

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Bureau of Elections is giving extra scrutiny to signatures submitted by a group seeking to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law for construction workers after an initial review suggested a significant -- but not disqualifying -- number of invalid signatures.

The Protecting Michigan Taxpayers committee submitted roughly 380,000 signatures to the state in November, and officials initially reviewed a random sample of 535 to determine the likelihood that at least 252,523 are valid.

Of the 535 signatures reviewed, officials found 370 were valid, which is more than needed to avoid rejection, said spokesman Fred Woodhams. But the amount is “fewer than the 373 required by the statistical model that the Board of State Canvassers has used for decades to recommend approval,” Woodhams said.

The state will review a larger sample of about 4,000 petition signatures to determine their validity, he said. The board will use the second sample to recommend the petition for approval or denial.

The prolonged state review is the latest setback for the committee, which also failed to advance initiated legislation in 2015 after spending more than a $1 million on a petition drive derailed by a large number of duplicate signatures.

Committee President Jeff Wiggins, state director of the Associated Contractors and Builders Association of Michigan, called the additional state review a “temporary setback.” But he said he remains fully confident the initiative will advance to the state Legislature.

“We know the larger sample is going to come back and show that we have it,” Wiggins said Tuesday evening. “We just have to wait a little longer. As a state agency, I can understand why they’d want to be 100 percent sure all the signatures are there. If it takes a larger sample to show them that, we have no problem with that.”

Michigan’s 1965 prevailing wage law requires contractors to pay their workers union-rate wages and benefits on state-financed or -sponsored construction projects, including school and government buildings.

The repeal group, funded primarily by an association of contractors that does not use union laborers, argues the wage mandate inflates construction costs ultimately borne by taxpayers. But a separate coalition that includes labor groups and union-friendly contractors contends that repeal would lower worker wages and limit training programs they fund.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder opposes repealing the law, but GOP leaders in the state Legislature support the effort. If the petition signatures are certified, legislators could repeal the law without Snyder’s signature.

The Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, which opposes repeal, is expected to rally at the state Capitol on Wednesday. Council members are asking lawmakers not to take up the proposal if it reaches them and instead “let the people decide” by allowing the measure to advance to the statewide ballot in November.

“Michigan voters, not the state Legislature should ultimately decide on whether the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act is retained,” council secretary-treasurer Pat Devlin said in a statement announcing the rally.

The Protecting Michigan Taxpayers committee had spent more than $1.39 million on the latest petition drive and repeal effort through the end of 2017, according to a campaign disclosure report filed last week with the state.

Liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan, citing the additional state review, blasted what it called another “botched” petition drive that is “crashing because of shoddy signature collection.”

But Wiggins said the repeal group is “not really worried” by state election officials reviewing a second signature sample, predicting the initiated legislation will become law later this year.

“I’m confident it will be before the Legislature to have them vote on it in the near future,” he said. “We know the votes are there in the Legislature to get this passed.”