Snyder readies talent push amid prevailing wage fight

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to urge legislators to fund new computer science student scholarships, school and university grants, K-12 teacher training and child care for technology workers as part of a “Marshall Plan for Talent” he will unveil in coming months.

The Republican governor is setting an ambitious agenda for his final year in office, despite his lame-duck status and what is shaping up to be a contentious election season.

Majority GOP lawmakers also facing term limits have their own priorities and could butt heads with Snyder on issues including proposals to forgive outstanding “driver responsibility fees” and eliminate the state’s prevailing wage law for construction workers.

Snyder is expected to pitch his talent plan in a Jan. 23 State of the State address and roll out details during his February budget presentation to the Legislature. It will focus on creating programs to prepare Michigan students for in-demand, well-paying jobs in computer science and information technology fields.

“We are seeing a gap between job providers and employees, and that gap is talent,” said Snyder spokesman Ari Adler. “We need to address how we can have the best trained workforce in the country if we’re going to continue the momentum of our comeback.”

The administration disclosed some parts of the plan in the city of Detroit’s pitch to land Amazon’s second North American headquarters, which Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert submitted to the tech giant in October.

A state planning document provided to the city highlighted $95 million in potential spending Snyder’s team claimed would “fill our talent pool with over 126,000 highly skilled and qualified IT workers by 2030.”

Proposals included $15 million to create a “talent promise” scholarship for computer science students, $15 million for colleges and universities to upgrade curriculum, $10 million to train new K-12 teachers, $15 million in grants to help high schools and colleges launch new information technology programs and $10 million for new apprenticeship programs targeting veterans, women and minorities.

The Snyder administration also outlined $15 million in potential spending to create a “subscription based public-private partnership to provide low cost child care options to tech workers,” with an initial pilot program focused on downtown Detroit and up to three “satellite facilities in surrounding communities.”

The state document was obtained by The Detroit News and other organizations though Freedom of Information Act requests. Details were first reported by Crain’s Detroit Business.

Adler confirmed that portions of the governor’s talent plan were in the Amazon bid but said “there’s much more to it than that.” The administration will discuss “proper funding” with lawmakers, Adler said, suggesting a $120 million figure in the bid summary may not be the final target.

“The Marshall Plan for Talent is taking a big picture view of the entire landscape in a way that has not been done before,” he said.

GOP debates

While pending proposals such as subsidized child care may face resistance in the GOP-led Legislature, state House Speaker Tom Leonard said he is open to the larger discussion.

“Anytime we’re creating an environment whereby we’re producing better talent for all businesses here in the state of Michigan, I’m willing to have that conversation,” Leonard, R-DeWitt, told The Detroit News.

The term-limited speaker, who is seeking the Republican nomination for state attorney general, identified mental health reform, skilled trades training and driver responsibility fee forgiveness as his top legislative priorities.

Snyder supports accelerating the phase-out of driver responsibility fees but has budget concerns with the full amnesty program the House approved in November. The Senate approved a separate package that would only forgive debts six years or older for residents, many of whom have lost their driver’s licenses because they couldn’t afford to pay the fees.

The House plan would forgive most of a collective $594 million in debt amassed by about 317,000 Michigan drivers. Because the state considers many of the old fees uncollectable, it is projected to cost the state $83.9 million in revenue between 2018 and 2021.

Leonard, a former assistant prosecutor in Genesee County, said he “can’t even count the number of individuals I would see that would come to pre-trials in tears, who couldn’t get their driver’s license back because they were burdened by these fees, some in excess of $16,000 or $17,000.”

“It’s time to end the money grab,” he said. “It’s time to stop the excuses, and it’s time to give these 300,000 people their driver’s license back.”

Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof of West Olive is focused on completing the annual state budget in 2018 and will discuss the impact of the recent federal tax changes with his caucus and the governor, said spokeswoman Amber McCann.

Snyder on Monday proposed a “fix” to restore and slightly increase a personal exemption that had been eliminated under the federal overhaul, which the administration said could cost Michigan taxpayers $1.5 billion a year without action from state legislators.

The tax proposal is expected to win quick approval in the state Legislature, but some House Republicans and Senate Majority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, say they want to go beyond the fix to provide some form of additional tax relief for Michigan residents.

“I think we owe it to taxpayers to make up for the tax increases they’ve seen the last seven years,” Ananich said, referencing a 2011 tax code overhaul approved by Snyder that cut taxes for businesses but eliminated several credits and exemptions for individuals.

Leonard last year fell three votes short of passing a bill to reduce the income tax rate from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent over three years.

Prevailing wage dispute

Meekhof is also monitoring “other issues that will come before the Legislature in the form of citizens’ initiatives,” said McCann, a likely reference to a petition drive seeking to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law that guarantees union-level wages and benefits on state-sponsored construction projects.

The GOP-led Senate voted to eliminate the wage mandate in 2015 but the House did not take up the proposal after opposition from Snyder, who argues that repealing the law would hurt efforts to attract workers to careers in skilled trade professions.

Republican legislators could force repeal without Snyder’s blessing if the state Board of Canvassers certifies petition signatures collected by an association of contractors who do not use union laborers.

Leonard said repealing the prevailing wage law could save taxpayers money, but he has not yet surveyed House Republicans to determine if there are sufficient votes for passage.

“If this is an issue that works its way through the legal system and it lands on our desk and we have an opportunity to take it up, we will have that conversation with the caucus,” Leonard said. “ I do believe (repeal) is the right policy for Michigan.”

Democrats are expected to fight the prevailing wage repeal, arguing it is little more than an attempt to lower worker wages. A coalition supporting the wage law is expected to rally Wednesday at the Michigan Capitol as lawmakers return from winter break.

“The fact that Republicans are spending their time and energy trying to repeal prevailing wage instead of actually trying to find more opportunities for training and better opportunities for people in the trades makes absolutely no sense to me,” said House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing.

MSU in spotlight

Singh said Democrats are willing to work with Snyder on some of his priorities, pointing to reports from task forces appointed by the Republican governor that highlighted funding gaps between K-12 schools and the need for billions of dollars in new infrastructure investments.

“I think it’s time for us to address some of the key failures of (Snyder’s) education policy,” Singh said. “He’s got a year to try to right part of that ship.”

Leonard and Ananich both said they hope the Legislature will explore whether Michigan State University properly handled sexual assault allegations against former gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar, who was sentenced to 60 years in prison last month on child pornography charges and faces sentencing in separate assault convictions.

Leonard, who has called on MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon to resign, said legislators could use the budget process to grill the university, which will receive about $281 million in taxpayer state funding this year. Ananich said the Senate should convene hearings to probe the university’s possible role in the scandal, including what officials knew and when they knew it.

“The Senate has a responsibility to make sure we get to the bottom of that,” said Ananich, who is pushing for the upper chamber to increase oversight efforts following the Flint water crisis, false unemployment fraud accusations and other government failures.