Our Editorial: Let’s move past prevailing wage

The Detroit News

Along with the descent of winter, it’s definitely petition drive season in Michigan. Case in point: Two separate initiatives are warring over the future of the prevailing wage law. As we’ve argued for years, residents (and lawmakers) should throw their support behind repealing it.

Prevailing wage, which has been Michigan law since 1965, requires workers be paid union-rate wages and benefits on state-financed construction projects, even if they aren’t in a union. This drives up costs for these projects, thus negatively impacting taxpayers who pick up the inflated check.

The Protecting Michigan Taxpayers ballot committee, funded largely by the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan, has submitted more than 380,000 signatures for a repeal of the plan. The measure will head to the Legislature if approved by the Board of State Canvassers.

The counter-petition effort, the Construction Workers Fair Wage Act, seeks to preserve prevailing wage for state-funded construction projects. And several other groups are trying to convince lawmakers not to take up the repeal. The organizers want lawmakers to sign off on the competing measures going before voters next year, and let state residents decide the measure’s fate.

Gov. Rick Snyder has maintained his opposition to repealing prevailing wage, arguing that it could discourage interest in the skilled trades, which he has promoted, given the thousands of jobs going unfilled in Michigan.

Yet many of his Republican counterparts in the Legislature, including leadership, have voiced their support for repeal to ease the taxpayer burden and higher price tag for government projects. Legislators could do away with the law without Snyder’s signature by approving the repeal initiative when it reaches them, which would take only a simple majority.

If they don’t act within the 40-day window, the measure would go to the general election ballot in November 2018.

Jeff Wiggins, state director for ABC and head of the repeal committee, is pleased with the progress to toss prevailing wage.

“I’m glad to see the other side has as much confidence in us getting the votes as we do,” he said.

Union-supported contractor groups and other organizers for the counter petition have 180 days to collect more than 250,000 signatures.

Mike Jackson, executive secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, argues prevailing wage is basically a minimum wage for construction workers and that “lowering wages leads to lower-skilled workers and more mistakes.”

But Jarrett Skorup, policy analyst with the Mackinac Center, recently observed in our pages, “Michigan’s [prevailing wage] law is the most stringent in the nation, setting arbitrary — and often absurd — prices for schools, roads, parks, libraries, and other public construction projects.”

A study by the Anderson Economic Group found that from 2002 to 2012 the prevailing wage law cost taxpayers an average $224 million per year on construction projects for K-12 districts, community colleges and public universities.

That’s a lot of money that could go toward other schools and projects. The Legislature should repeal prevailing wage.