The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, July 24, 2015

Petition effort for prevailing wage repeal backed by $1million - so far

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING - Now we know about how much money is being raised - and where the money is coming from - to pay for petition signature-gatherers to overturn the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act of 1965.

So far, more than $1 million has been spent, and there is probably more where that came from. And - no surprise - the backers of the petition drive are people and groups with right-wing ties who traditionally have had little use for labor unions.

"Protecting Michigan Taxpayers" - the same group that pushed for passage of Michigan's right-to-work law in 2012 - spent close to $342,000 from April 21 to June 29 to help fund the ongoing petition drive intended to overturn prevailing wage. That group’s biggest backer, the Michigan Freedom Fund gave $372,200 in direct and in-kind contributions. It's an organization with ties to the DeVos family in Grand Rapids. And, more than $348,000 was chipped in by the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan.

Except for the backers of the petition, no one knows how well the effort is going to collect signatures. But there's not a lot of doubt, inside or outside of organized labor, that the petition effort is going to get enough signatures.

"Yes, a million dollars is quite a bit of money to be spending on a petition campaign," said Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. "And given the long-time backing for repealing the prevailing wage among some in the business community and among the conservatives who control the legislative process, it would be hard for me to believe that they couldn't get the necessary signatures. In fact, given their resources, it would probably be pretty embarrassing to them if they couldn't get the signatures."

The petition funding information comes via campaign finance reports filed July 6 with the Michigan Secretary of State as reported by the Associated Press. The AP reported that the anti-prevailing wage group's biggest expense — more than $338,000 — went to a Las Vegas-based political campaign firm called Silver Bullet LLC, for consulting services related to collecting signatures.

In its petition drive, Protecting Michigan Taxpayers has 180 days (until late November) to collect 252,523 signatures of registered voters in Michigan in the first step toward overturning Michigan's Prevailing Wage Act of 1965. If they collect enough valid signatures, the state Constitution allows a rarely used process where the language on the petition is then brought before the state Legislature for a vote. If majorities in both the state House and Senate vote to approve prevailing wage repeal, the matter is settled - Gov. Rick Snyder, who has said he doesn't support repeal - would not have a veto available and would have no say in the matter.

If sufficient signatures are gathered, but prevailing wage repeal is not enacted by the Legislature, the petition language says repeal then goes on the statewide ballot on Nov. 8, 2016 as a ballot referendum.

It's common for petition signature-gatherers to be paid per-signature for their efforts. In this case, it would also come as no surprise that the clipboard-holders would be ignorant about prevailing wage - it's not an easy concept to explain in a short amount of time for even those who are well-schooled on the subject.

On the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council's Facebook page, there continues to be a lively debate about the benefits of prevailing wage, and short descriptions of encounters with petition gathers.

"I was told it was 'repealing a law that hurts small businesses.' That language right there made me suspicious - read more, declined to sign," said one Facebook poster.

Wrote another: "I was approached at the Sec. of State office, by a young woman who said this was a petition for more well paid jobs in Michigan. I asked who she was soliciting for... And she said she was an independent contractor. I read the language and it was easy to decline to sign! Again, the right wing is paying poor people to work against their own self interest, and prepping them with dishonest scripts."

Wrote another: "Just turned down some man the other day outside the Dow Library in Midland. Told him I was from union people!"

Ballenger said he was approached recently by a petition gatherer outside of Flint's City Hall. "The guy was babbling nonsense, until I finally realized he wanted me to sign the prevailing wage petition," Ballenger said, who told him he wouldn't sign because he's a member of the news media.

On taxpayer-funded construction projects, Michigan’s prevailing wage law requires that contractors pay workers wages that "prevail" in their geographic area. The law prevents undercutting local wage scales by out-of-area contractors winning bids by importing low-wage workers. Prevailing wages are also recirculated among businesses in local communities, and promote higher safety and skill levels among workers through the support of apprenticeship programs.

Opponents of the law have simply maintained that prevailing wage artificially inflate wages and are an additional burden on taxpayers, although numerous studies have shown that the laws do not increase the cost of publicly financed construction.

Ballenger said prevailing wage supporters have few good options during and after the petition process. With 1,036 words of explanation for prevailing wage on the back of the petition sheets, he said one hurdle for petition gatherers is "hoping people will sign even if they don't know what they are signing." Then if enough signatures are gathered, it's a step by step process: challenging petition signatures. Lobbying lawmakers to vote against prevailing wage repeal. Then if the repeal is adopted, deciding if a counter ballot measure to restore prevailing wage is even a legal option, could be passed by the voters, and if the expense is worth it. "However you decide to fight it, you can be sure that the other side is going to be spending big money to oppose you," Ballenger said.