Minimum wage showdown looms in Michigan's lame-duck session

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, right, House Speaker Tom Leonard, center, and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, left, speak to reporters at the Capitol in Lansing, Mich.

Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature is expected to scale back minimum wage and paid sick leave laws before they take effect as the majority party braces for a Democratic governor next year.

The plans are anticipated to prompt a potentially combative lame-duck session, which will start in two weeks. Term-limited GOP Gov. Rick Snyder said he does not view the lame-duck session through a “partisan” lens but expects a flood of legislation to reach his desk in the final two months of his tenure.

The term-limited governor continues to push his own personal priorities, including a “renew and rebuild Michigan” plan to fund environmental cleanup and water infrastructure upgrades through fee increases Republican lawmakers have been hesitant to approve.

"Everything is possible" during the upcoming lame duck session, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said, from reforms to the state’s no-fault auto insurance law to changes to the $12-an-hour minimum wage and paid sick leave initiatives Republicans adopted to keep off the statewide ballot.

Republicans, who have had full control of state government since 2010, have used recent lame-duck sessions to advance aggressive and controversial legislation, including the 2012 right-to-work law and a welfare recipient drug testing law approved in 2014.

Changes to the paid sick leave law, which includes a broad mandate for employers, could include tweaks to what sort of notice employees would be required to give to take time off, said Meekhof, R-West Olive. The changes would "make it more acceptable to the business community so we continue to keep our economy on track.”

Democrats fear Republicans will go much further and attempt to “gut” the wage and sick leave laws, which were sent to the Legislature through petitions circulated by liberal groups and signed by hundreds of thousands of Michigan voters.

Sen. Mike Shirkey, a Clarklake Republican who will become majority leader next year,  introduced a bill Thursday that would eliminate a legal “rebuttable presumption” for workers if their employer penalizes or punishes them for alleging a violation of the paid sick leave law. 

The legislation would also shorten from three years to six months a requirement to maintain a record of hours worked and earned sick time

A separate bill introduced by Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, a Lowell Republican who chairs the appropriations committee, would modify the minimum wage law by maintaining a lower wage for tipped restaurant workers the initiative sought to eliminate.

Outnumbered in the House and Senate, Democrats would have little ability to stop a unified GOP majority intent on making significant changes to the laws.

But there are things “the public can do,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint. “They can make sure their voices are heard and say that obviously people wanted a raise, and they wanted to have paid sick leave.”

Ananich said he’s concerned about potential “shenanigans” from Republicans eager to act without the looming veto threat of Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat. The GOP will return smaller majorities next year.

“I think some version of paid sick leave and the increases in wages need to left in place,” Ananich said. “And if they gut that, I think they’ll be held accountable for that.”

Activists last month rallied against potential changes to the minimum wage legislation, specifically planned restoration of the lower wage for tipped employees, at the Michigan Capitol and other sites across the state.

Actress Jane Fonda, seen Nov. 5 at the Telethon For America in Los Angeles, has been campaigning for the One Fair Wage initiative for two years.

Actress Jane Fonda joined protesters, along with Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Adopting this proposal only to gut it in lame duck is a slap in the face to Michigan’s 1.3 million tipped workers,” Fonda said in a statement released by the One Fair Wage petition committee.

Some restaurant workers fear eliminating the two-tiered minimum wage system would discourage patrons from tipping and actually reduce their overall pay. A group called the Restaurant Workers of America on Thursday praised Hildenbrand for introducing the new legislation.

The bill would “keep servers and bartenders safe from outside influences trying to disrupt our livelihoods, industry and culture that we know and love,” said Daniel Tucker, a manager and server at Lansing Brewing Co.

House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, has not yet looked at the proposed Senate changes but has said the minimum wage and paid sick leave laws could be “improved.”

Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt,  is  a former Genesee County assistant prosecutor and assistant attorney general. He has served in the state House since 2012 and has been speaker for about two years.

“He’s open to looking at anybody’s suggestion,” said spokesman Gideon D’Assandro.

Leonard plans to meet with members over the next two weeks to discuss priority bills they have in the House or Senate.

The state House and Senate convened Thursday and each caucus elected leaders for next year. They are expected to return Nov. 27 and meet over a four-week period through Dec. 20.

The powerful Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Farm Bureau are backing Snyder’s plan to increase garbage dumping fees to fund environmental cleanup efforts and water customer fees to help upgrade aging underground infrastructure across the state.

But Meekhof said Senate Republicans remain opposed to the plan, which has also faced opposition from House Republicans.

“At this point, I’m waiting to see what their priorities are, and let’s merge them together and see what we can accomplish,” Snyder said.

The governor is also expecting lawmakers to advance at least one more supplemental spending bill that could include additional funding to fight emerging water contaminants like perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS.

While Republican legislators have passed controversial bills in recent lame-duck sessions, the GOP governor hasn't always signed them.

Snyder vetoed 18 other bills approved in the 2014 lame-duck session, including concealed pistol permit legislation and e-cigarette regulations.

In a Thursday meeting with Senate Republicans, Snyder noted lawmakers traditionally leave him with “a holiday gift” in the form of a stack of bills to consider, “and I wouldn’t expect that to be different this year.”

“They thought that quite humorous,” he said.

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Twitter: @jonathanoosting