High court puts prevailing wage repeal vote on hold

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A push to repeal Michigan’s prevailing wage law for construction workers hit a snag on Tuesday.

The Michigan Supreme Court suspended a lower-court order requiring the Board of State Canvassers to certify petition signatures as the seven justices decide whether to hear an appeal.

The high court did not rule on the merits of the case and could still reject an appeal by a coalition of unions and union-friendly contractors.

But the Tuesday afternoon “stay” prompted cancellation of a canvassers meeting and delays likely action in Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature, which is expected to take up the prevailing wage repeal measure if it reaches lawmakers. Approval would bypass a threatened veto by GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.

The 1965 law guarantees union-level pay and benefits for construction workers on projects funded by the state government. Repeal proponents argue prevailing wage inflates construction costs ultimately borne by taxpayers, while opponents maintain repeal would lower wages and limit training programs they fund.

The Michigan Court of Appeals last week ordered the Board of State Canvassers to certify the prevailing wage repeal petition after the panel deadlocked in late April in a 2-2 vote.

The Michigan Bureau of Elections had recommended certification of the prevailing wage ban ballot proposal, but both Democrats on the bipartisan panel voted against the prevailing wage repeal measure amid arguments over false addresses provided by circulators who had collected signatures.

The Board of State Canvassers cancelled its Tuesday afternoon meeting after the high court’s order to suspend the lower court order while the seven justices consider a request for appeal.

“We’re in a holding pattern waiting on the Supreme Court,” said Chairman Norm Shinkle, a Republican. At least one Democrat was poised to miss the meeting, Shinkle said earlier Tuesday, suggesting the board may not have even had the “quorum” needed to act.

Jeff Wiggins, president for Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, the committee backing the initiative, is urging swift action but said he is not surprised by the delay.

“The Supreme Court started to receive things Monday and received them all throughout the day,” Wiggins said, referencing the emergency appeal filed by Protecting Michigan Jobs, the group opposing repeal.

“I would be shocked if they’ve even had a chance to look at the merits of the case,” he said.

The Michigan Court of Appeals took less than two weeks to rule in the initial case, “and I think you’re going to see the same type of expediency at the Supreme Court level — at least I’m hoping,” Wiggins added.

Pat Devlin of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council said prevailing wage supporters need a chance to make the case “for preserving and protecting the integrity that serves as the underlying foundation of our election process.”

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, attorneys for the Project Michigan Jobs committee argued the Court of Appeals erred when it said canvassers lacked the authority to reject signatures collected by a circulator who did not abide by requirements of Michigan Election Law.

The group alleges that several circulators who were supposed to list their home address on petitions instead gave fake ones, including P.O. boxes, motels and churches.

“At a minimum, it was well within the board’s discretion to determine whether such signatures should be disqualified for fraud,” wrote Andrea Hansen, an attorney for Protecting Michigan Jobs.

The Protecting Michigan Taxpayers committee, backed by contractors that don’t use union labor, had urged denial of opponent’s request to delay the case.

“If a crime was committed in circulating petitions, the remedy is to prosecute the circulator, not discard valid signatures of registered voters,” attorney Gary Gordon argued in a Monday filing.