Prevailing wage group tries to avoid signature scrutiny

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – A group seeking to repeal Michigan’s prevailing wage law that mandates construction worker compensation is asking the state to certify its petitions despite questions over signature validity, a move the Bureau of Elections says would be “unprecedented” and is recommending against.

Approval by the Board of State Canvassers would send the proposal to the state Legislature, where Republican majorities could repeal the 1965 wage law and sidestep opposition from GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, who would does not have veto authority over legislation initiated through petition drives.

The Bureau of Elections is poised to give extra scrutiny to the signatures after reviewing an initial sample of 535 and determining that 370 were valid — three short of the 373 threshold traditionally used to recommend certification but more than the 339 or less that would trigger denial.

The state’s plan to review a larger sample of signatures would “waste time, energy and resources,” according to a petition for immediate certification that canvassers will consider Tuesday.

Attorneys for the pro-repeal Protecting Michigan Taxpayers committee are urging the state to validate at least 12 of the 165 signatures tossed from the initial sample, arguing they are “genuine” despite address and date irregularities due to “sloppy handwriting.”

Even if they “lack perfect handwriting, the intent of the voters is clear as is the voters’ attempt to write the correct dates,” wrote Jason Hanselman of the Dykema Gossett law firm. “To the extent that these samples lack clarity, a ‘tie’ should go to the runner.”

But Protecting Michigan Jobs, a coalition of labor groups and union-friendly contractors that support the prevailing wage law, urging the bureau to reject 19 signatures it validated during the initial review.

“The only way to preserve the integrity of this process is to examine more signatures in order to ensure that the constitutional signature requirements have been satisfied,” opposition attorney John Pirich wrote in a filing to canvassers.

Tuesday’s arguments could boil down to minutiae. That’s nothing new for the Board of State Canvassers, which is also tasked with approving petition requirements such as font size. The small details have large significance for Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, which has tried but failed to repeal the law before.

The group, primarily funded by an association of contractors that does not use union laborers, spent more than $1 million on a petition drive in 2015, but the effort was derailed by an unusually large number of duplicate signatures that were invalidated.

Michigan’s 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.

Repeal advocates say it inflates the cost of taxpayer-funded construction projects, but supports say it protects wages and helps fund skilled trade apprenticeship programs.

This time around, Protecting Michigan Taxpayers turned in 382,700 signatures to the state on Nov. 3, topping the 252,523 needed for certification. The state automatically threw out 2,797 because of torn or damaged petition sheets, defective circulator certificates or jurisdictional errors.

To estimate the validity of the other 379,903 signatures, the Bureau of Elections initially analyzed a random sample of 535. Because 165 were invalidated, staff is planning to review a larger sample of about 4,000 petition signatures.

Protecting Michigan Taxpayers President Jeff Wiggins previously told The Detroit News he had “no problem” with the additional review but said Monday the delay is unnecessary because the initial sample should be sufficient.

Wiggins is confident the GOP-led Legislature will approve the measure if it reaches them, noting support from House Speaker Tom Leonard of DeWitt and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof of West Olive.

“I have no worries there,” Wiggins said. “I just want to get it to them as soon as I can.”

Rejecting signatures due to sloppy handwriting would deny citizens their right to initiate laws under the state constitution, attorneys wrote in their petition to the board.

In at least two instances, bureau staff could not determine whether a signature was dated 2017 or 2019, Hanselman said, suggesting the 2019 reading “defies logic and common sense.”

Another signature was tossed because of apparent confusion over whether the signer dated it the 5th month or the 15th month, which Hanselman noted “does not exist.” In two cases, staff could not tell if a signature was dated 2017 or 2011.

A Macomb County signer also wrote they lived in “SH” instead of spelling out Sterling Heights, and a Berrien Township signer wrote “BT” instead of Berrien Township, according to the petition.

Protecting Michigan Jobs, meanwhile, is asking the state to reject several signatures it had deemed valid, questioning whether the signer was registered to vote in a different jurisdiction at the time he or she signed the petition. In four instances, a circulator provided an out-of-state UPS store as his address, an issue state officials have not previously considered.

“If the signatures are sufficient, petitioners should have no concerns about pulling a larger sample,” Pirich told canvassers. “Indeed, the fact that petitioner protects what should be a fairly simple and standard administrative process should give this board great pause, particularly given what happened in 2015.”

With attorneys for both groups disputing the validity of individual signatures, the Bureau of Elections continues to plan for additional review, noting it has used the consistent processes and procedures for decades.

“Staff recommends that the board maintain the signature review procedures and follow the established, statistically sound random sampling methodology,” the bureau said in a Jan. 26 report to canvassers.

Additional review of a larger sample should be conducted “to determine at a higher level of confidence whether the petition contains at least 252,523 valid signatures,” the staff report said.