Prevailing wage repeal advocates promise court fight

Beth LeBlanc and Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A group seeking to repeal Michigan’s prevailing wage law promised Thursday to take their fight to the state Court of Appeals after the Board of State Canvassers deadlocked on letting the intiative advance to the state Legislature.

In a decision that came down to the validity of some circulators’ addresses, the four-member board split along party lines on petitions submitted by Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, which also attempted to repeal the law by petition in 2015. The two board Democrats rejected the petitions.

The initiative would toss a 1965 law that essentially requires union-level wages be paid to construction workers on publicly funded projects. Repeal supporters argue the law inflates construction costs, while opponents maintain a repeal would lower wages and limit training programs they fund.

Officials for the pro-repeal group vowed legal action following the board’s decision, which came three days after the Michigan Bureau of Elections recommended certification.

“This is the first time in a long time that they have ignored the staff recommendation,” said Jeff Wiggins, president for Protecting Michigan Taxpayers. “Unfortunately, two of the board members chose to shirk their duty to the citizens of the state of Michigan who wanted to see this repealed.”

Steve Claywell, president for the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, said he was pleased with the board’s decision.

“They did their job to take the evidence that was presented and make the right decision and move forward on behalf of the working men and women of Michigan,” Claywell said.

Labor groups and union-friendly contractors challenged the prevailing wage repeal petition, citing 295 separate petitions from circulators who listed non-residential buildings as residential addresses, including a California UPS store, a Roseville Super 8 Motel and the Central United Methodist Church in Detroit.

Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office, when asked to weigh in, said the board can seek criminal or civil charges against circulators who didn’t list a proper address, but possible penalties “do not include disqualifying the affected petition.”

The Bureau of Elections in a report released Monday recommended the Board of State Canvassers approve the repeal petition, despite the extra scrutiny the petition signatures received.

In a response filed Monday, petition challengers said the conclusion from Schuette’s office was “ludicrous” and potentially would allow for signatures collected by circulators without a residential address, who are 10-year-old children, non-citizens or identify themselves “Mickey Mouse.”

“Indeed, if this Board concludes that it does not have the power to invalidate a signature of an elector based on the conduct of the person collecting that signature, this Board will be inviting massive fraud into the process,” lawyer Andrea Hansen wrote in her response.

Board members Julie Matuzak and Jeannette Bradshaw, both Democrats, voiced concerns about approving the petition while the legal question of the circulator signatures remained in limbo. Matuzak is the retired political coordinator for the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, while Bradshaw is recording secretary for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 58 in Detroit.

“I think there is a real and legitimate legal conflict that needs to be sorted out either by the Legislature or the courts,” Matuzak said.

Board members Norman Shinkle and Colleen Pero, both Republicans, voted in favor of the repeal decision, citing the board’s ministerial role in carrying out staff recommendations.

“I think it’s our job to follow staff recommendations, as we have done,” Shinkle said.

Eric Doster, a lawyer for Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, said the group intends to file a mandamus action to the state Court of Appeals in what he anticipates will be an “easy case.”

“You just saw two ministerial people put on magisterial black robes,” Doster said.

Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature is expected to take up the repeal measure should it advance rather than letting it go to the ballot. Doing so would circumvent a threatened veto by GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, who has argued repealing prevailing wage could hurt his efforts to encourage more skilled trades workers.

“I hope the courts ... rule quickly so we can get this over here to the Legislature, and we can get it done,” House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, said after the canvassers’ vote. “It’s the right policy and something I believe we have to get done for the taxpayers of this state.”

Leonard said House Republicans likely have enough votes to pass the repeal measure, opposed by most Democrats. Senate Republicans approved similar legislation in 2015, and Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof of West Olive is a strong repeal supporter.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said he was concerned by “troubling” reports that repeal petition circulators “were breaking the law” by using false addresses and said he hopes the courts will reject their appeal.

“This is sort of a pattern with this group,” Ananich said, referencing earlier errors that derailed a 2015 repeal petition drive. “There’s a lot of folks who are dead set in lowering the wages of Michigan workers. This is something that the Democrats are against.”

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