Board orders review of prevailing wage repeal signatures

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Election officials should give extra scrutiny to signatures from a group seeking to repeal Michigan’s prevailing wage law that mandates construction worker compensation, the Board of State Canvassers ruled Tuesday.

The bipartisan board unanimously rejected a request from the Protecting Michigan Taxpayers committee, which had asked it to certify petitions despite questions over signature validity that arose during a state review of an initial sample.

The decision came after a lengthy hearing at the Michigan Capitol where attorneys for the repeal group showed canvassers bulletin-board versions of petitions, asking them analyze and ultimately approve a series of signatures that were tossed due to sloppy handwriting.

Gary Gordon, a prominent elections attorney with the Dykema Gossett law firm, likened the exercise to an “instant replay” review in a sporting event.

“The staff made the calls, but we’re going to go look at the monitor and look at this in slow motion, kind of, as we’ve blown everything up,” Gordon said.

But an attorney for opposition group Protect Michigan Jobs urged canvassers not to play signature police, and Bureau of Elections Director Sally Williams told them that certifying the petitions despite a recommendation for additional scrutiny would be an “unprecedented” move.

The bureau will now review a larger sample of roughly 4,000 signatures. An initial review of 535 showed that 370 were valid – three short of the 373-signature threshold traditionally used to recommend certification.

“I think justice was served today,” said Pat Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, which supports the prevailing wage law.

“We weren’t asking for de-certification. We felt the contested signatures fell into the guidelines (for additional review) and this would have been a precedent setter if they went against (the bureau).”

Approval by the Board of State Canvassers – which could still happen at a later date -- would send the proposal to the state Legislature, where Republican majorities could repeal the 1965 wage law despite opposition from GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.

Protecting Michigan Taxpayers President Jeff Wiggins called Tuesday’s decision “disappointing.”

“We thoroughly vetted that sample,” he said. “We believe the signatures are there.”

Wiggins said he has no problem with the Bureau of Elections reviewing additional signatures but is concerned by the delay.

“People are starting to make budget decisions for 2019, and we were hoping we could get this before the Legislature as soon as possible,” he said.

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 supporters say it protects wages and helps finance skilled trade apprenticeship programs.

Since Snyder can’t veto a measure initiated by petition drive, the Legislature could have the final say on the repeal proposal if it reaches them. If they did not take it up in 40 days, it would go this fall to the statewide ballot.