Michigan Democrats' first bills include right-to-work repeal, prevailing wage

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — With new majorities in place, Michigan Democrats outlined their first proposals of the 2023-2024 term that would repeal the state's right-to-work law, restore a prevailing wage policy and expand anti-discrimination protections.

Democrats announced their initial bills on Wednesday, the first session day of the year and the first session day when they've held power in both the House and Senate in nearly 40 years. The measures would undo some of Republicans' top legislative priorities from their decades in control while instituting targeted tax relief previously championed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“These initial bills represent our collective commitment to expanding rights and opportunities for the people of Michigan,” Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, said. “Our first and only order of business is to tackle the real challenges that folks are facing by implementing an agenda that makes Michigan an even better place to call home."

Michigan Speaker of the House Joe Tate walks out to the inauguration seating area.

House Speaker Joe Tate, D-Detroit, said the bills "advance the priorities of the people."

“Michigan families are struggling,” Tate said Wednesday from the House rostrum. “Our job is to recognize their struggles, acknowledge their hardships and support meaningful change that increases their financial security and stability.”

The Democratic proposals will formally debut on Thursday when the full details of the bills will be made available.

But on Wednesday, Democrats released brief descriptions of the six pieces of legislation that are scheduled to be introduced in the House and Senate.

Right-to-work repeal on docket

One proposal would repeal the controversial right-to-work law that GOP Gov. Rick Snyder signed in December 2012 amid protests outside the state Capitol. The policy, which was viewed as a triumph among Republicans, barred labor contracts from requiring workers to become union members or pay the union a fee as a condition of their employment.

Democrats have been debating how quickly to advance right-to-work repeal in the new term.

Brinks was noncommittal Wednesday on whether she wanted to repeal the law.

"We are talking to all of the parties that we need to talk to in order to be successful with our entire legislative agenda," the Senate majority leader said.

Democrats hold narrow majorities in both the House and Senate. In the House, the breakdown is 56-54. In the Senate, it's 20-18. Republicans have urged Democrats to focus on topics where the two parties can work together.

Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Porter Township, called right-to-work repeal an "extreme" position.

"People want you work in the middle 70% instead of the extremes on one side," Nesbitt said.

Bill would reinstate prevailing wage

Another Democratic proposal outlined Wednesday would reinstate Michigan's prevailing wage law, which Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature repealed in 2018. The repeal capped a three-year battle over a law that required contractors to pay union wages and benefits on state-funded construction projects.

Whitmer ordered her Department of Technology, Management and Budget in October 2021 to require contractors and subcontractors on jobs worth over $50,000 to pay their employees the prevailing wage. A judge upheld Whitmer's order, which took effect March 1, 2022, when it was challenged by the trade association Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan.

The association responded Wednesday to Democrats' plans for right-to-work repeal and prevailing wage legislation, arguing that "both would be devastating to economic growth and the construction industry in Michigan."

Retirement tax repeal, EITC boost

Democrats also introduced bills that would repeal the retirement tax and increase the earned income tax credit.

State Rep. Angela Witwer, D-Delta Township, said her bill would repeal a 2011 retirement tax imposed under Snyder that she estimated costs 500,000 Michigan homes an average of $1,000 a year.

Witwer's description appears similar to the proposal advanced by Whitmer last year, which would have exempted public pensions from the 4.25% personal income tax.

Whitmer also has pushed for legislation to expand the earned income tax credit for the working poor, boosting the credit from 6% of the federal credit to 20%.

Bills would expand anti-discrimination law

Bills from state Sen. Jeremy Moss and Rep. Jason Hoskins, both Southfield Democrats, would add protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s anti-discrimination law, the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

Lawmakers have debated whether to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in the law for years, with the Republican majority often arguing such an addition should include a religious exemption.

The Michigan Supreme Court in July ruled Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act’s protections from discrimination based on sex already included protections for sexual orientation. An appellate court earlier had ruled the law’s protections based on sex also protected individuals from discrimination based on gender identity.

Even after the 5-2 high court decision, advocates urged the Legislature to make those protections explicit in the law in order to remove the potential for the court to change its opinion in a future case.

A repeal of Michigan abortion ban

Separate bills would repeal Michigan’s 1931 abortion ban, which has been rendered irrelevant with the passage of the Reproductive Freedom for All ballot initiative in November.

The bills, sponsored by State Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia, and Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, were introduced in response to the passage of Proposal 3, which secured the right to abortion and other forms of reproductive care in the Michigan Constitution.

“The government does not belong in the exam room as people make private medical decisions,” Pohutsky said said in a statement. “We must repeal old laws that no longer reflect the will of Michigan voters.”