The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, November 27, 2015

Prevailing wage repeal effort set to double down on first failed effort

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

'It’s clear that public policy now is being shaped by billionaires from West Michigan'

LANSING - The Michigan Board of State Canvassers on Nov. 5 unanimously rejected petitions intended to repeal the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act of 1965.

It was the formal end of a $1.5 million effort backed by a group called Protect Michigan Taxpayers, which is tied in and financially backed by the Associated Builders and Contractors-Michigan and the DeVos family of Grand Rapids.

The group hired Silver Bullet Inc, a Nevada-based petition-gathering company that did a fine job of gathering signatures, but failed miserably when it came to gathering legitimate signatures. Of the 390,000 or so signatures that were turned in to the state, nearly 50,000 were duplicates and 123,000 names were eliminated because the signers were not registered to vote. An estimated 59 percent of names were deemed invalid - an historically low number which Michigan Bureau of Elections Director Chris Thomas, called “disturbing.”

For the ABC, in many ways the costly failure of the petition was an appropriate and fitting end to a repeal effort. Removing prevailing wage would almost certainly lower construction worker wages in the state by 10 percent or more, and lead to more out-of-state contractors working on projects funded by Michigan taxpayers. The ABC both nationally and here in Michigan has consistently resisted and lobbied against laws which could boost worker wages or promote the hiring of local contractors when state money is involved.

The ABC/Protect Michigan Taxpayers stayed true to that philosophy here. They hired an out-of-state petition-gathering contractor, which in turn hired low-wage workers, many of whom then performed their job in a substandard manner that at best cheated their employer, and at worst constituted fraud.

That's not to say that contractors associated with the ABC have workforces that cheat or commit fraud against their employers or the owners that hire them. But labor unions have long berated the ABC and its contractors for lowering construction industry standards by promoting low wages and skimping on worker training, and not supporting laws that support local hiring.

The complete waste of $1.5 million in the failed petition effort hasn't seemed to discourage ABC/Protect Michigan Taxpayers. ABC-Michigan CEO Chris Fisher - who continues to hold his position despite the fiasco - has publicly pledged that the group is restarting another petition drive, although there's no mention of the first prevailing wage petition failure on their website. Apparently, the bottom line is, there's another $1.5 million or so where that came from.

Associated General Contractors President Bart Carrigan, a prevailing wage supporter, told Crain’s: “It’s clear that public policy now is being shaped by billionaires from West Michigan, and this is a stunning turnaround.”

The goal of a second petition drive, like this failed one, would be to gather more than 252,000 legitimate signatures. The signature-gatherers would have until June 1, 2016 to do their work in order for the matter to ultimately go to the November 2016 general election ballot.

If they gather enough legitimate signatures this time, it would first bring the prevailing wage repeal question before the state Legislature, which would have to vote on the matter. A majority of "yes" votes in both the state House and Senate would repeal the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act. The Senate is already seen as a lost cause for prevailing wage supporters, as that legislative body has already voted to repeal the law. But prevailing wage supporters believe that any vote in the state House would be razor-thin either way. Gov. Rick Snyder does not have a veto or any other official input into legislation that is presented by petition.

If there are not enough votes in the state Legislature to repeal, then according to the state Constitution the matter then goes on the ballot for Michigan voters to decide in November 2016.

If much of that petition and legislative process sounds familiar, it is: the only thing that has changed is that the ABC/DeVos/Protect Michigan Taxpayers is out $1.5 million, but they want construction workers' wages cut so desperately, they're willing to go through the process again without blinking an eye.

While it's not clear who Protect Michigan Taxpayers will hire to collect signatures this time, Crain's is reporting that Silver Bullet will not be part of the process. Crain's said Protecting Michigan Taxpayers paid the company more than $797,000 from July 21 to October 20 for “signature gathering,” and overall, has spent $1.5 million on the effort to date, citing campaign finance reports.

The ABC's Fisher, who is also vice president of Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, issued a statement that ignored any guilt he might have over throwing away all that money on a petition drive that was among the biggest electoral fails in Michigan history. "Hundreds of thousands of Michigan voters demanded that Lansing spend their tax dollars more wisely, and that work isn’t finished," he said. "Out of respect for the integrity of the petition process, Protecting Michigan Taxpayers has filed new petition language and looks forward to collecting signatures again to ensure voters’ voices will be heard. ... Repealing this costly and wasteful government regulation is too important not to finish the fight.”

Whatever. That's the kind of statement you make when you use free-market ideology to call for repeal of prevailing wage, in place of facts, real-world evidence and research that indicates repeal won't save taxpayers a dime, but will lower workers' wages.

In place of facts, we got petition-gathers saying anything to get people to sign, claiming that repeal would save taxes, improve worker training, fix the roads, or increase school construction.

There's very little that's truthful about the benefits of repealing prevailing wage - as we've pointed out, there's a ton of academic research that shows prevailing wage repeal is a detriment to the construction industry and the community at large. But then, who needs the truth when you have a billionaire at your back who is willing to double down on stupidity?