The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 29, 2015

Prevailing wage repeal passes Senate; Snyder: it has 'serious problems'

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING - The Michigan Senate adopted a package of three bills on May 14 that would repeal the state's prevailing wage law - and thus severely undermine the pay structure, safety and training of all construction workers in the state.

Republican leadership in the state Senate made good on their promise to make eliminating prevailing wage their top priority this year, voting 22-15 to repeal. Five Republican senators: Mike Kowall of White Lake, Tom Casperson of Escanaba, Mike Nofs of Battle Creek, Tory Rocca of Sterling Heights and Dale Zorn of Ida - joined a united bloc of Democratic senators in opposition, but there weren't enough votes to stop the repeal effort.

The package of bills now moves to the state House, where the GOP leadership has also expressed that it's their top priority to repeal the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act. A state House committee could have taken up the repeal legislation as early as this week.

"This has been one of my top legislative priorities since I was elected, based on my experience as a township official," said Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive. "It artificially raises the cost of construction projects paid for with taxpayer dollars."

But it doesn't - prevailing wage repeal has no affect on costs to taxpayers, according to a number of academic studies, which were presented to Republican lawmakers as part of the lobbying and education effort by organized labor. For the most part, the studies were ignored. So were arguments that repealing prevailing wage would lower construction worker incomes, make jobsites less safe because of reduced worker training and safety, and limit the ability of the industry to recruit workers for jobs that can be difficult and dangerous.

"Our state is already having a difficult time attracting and retaining skilled workers and these (bills) will only make that problem worse," said Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Legislative Director Patrick "Shorty" Gleason. "Michigan's building and construction workers work in hazardous conditions on critical infrastructure across the state. They deserve to make a fair wage that is reflective of their training and craftsmanship."

The package of repeal bills included passage of SB 3, which repeals the Prevailing Wage Act of 1965. Senate Bills 1 and 2 also yanked any reference to prevailing wage from school construction and other "economic development" areas of state government. In order to make sure that prevailing wage repeal is ironclad and can't be overturned by a vote of the people, Republicans allocated $75,000 from the state General Fund to "implement and disseminate" information about the repeal, similar to what they did with right-to-work in 2012.

"We all ran for these offices because we believe in the democratic process," said state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing). "This ($75,000) amendment is the height of political cowardice. You're afraid of what the voters will do." Said state Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Detroit: "We've systematically taken more money out of the pockets of people than we've put in. ... and somehow, people in this chamber call this good governance."

Gov. Rick Snyder reiterated his opposition to prevailing wage repeal, telling MLive and other reporters on May 19 that he has "serious problems" with the package approved by the Senate.

"If you want to be successful in the skilled trades — and it's an opportunity to create tens of thousands of great, well-paying jobs in Michigan — I think it's important to partner with many people and many groups that do that," Snyder said. He declined to specifically state that he would veto prevailing wage repeal legislation if it hits his desk, which is likely a major motivator for the Senate to go ahead with a vote on the legislation.

Testifying on May 13 before the Michigan Senate's Competitiveness Committee was Ed Haynor, a retired career and technical education instructor and a retired consultant for the West Michigan Construction Alliance. He's also a 40-year Michigan School Board Member at Newaygo Public Schools and the Newaygo County Regional Educational Service Agency.

"We work hard in Newaygo County to prepare our students for careers," Haynor said, speaking as a private citizen and not as a board member. "How do we continue to market and promote Michigan’s construction industry with students and parents, if good paying construction jobs are reduced to minimum wage jobs through the elimination of prevailing wage standards?" He added: "In my opinion, eliminating Michigan’s prevailing wage law will accelerate bad construction in Michigan, both in public and private sectors."

Others testifying against prevailing wage repeal were Mike Nystrom of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Authority, and Barton Malow Central Regional Vice President Michael Stobak. Stobak told a building trades conference in March that when prevailing wage was repealed for nearly three years in the 1990s, it lead to a fixation on price instead of quality, and "drastic reductions" in experience levels of workers. He called it "an absolute disaster" for the state's construction industry.

Republican Sen. Casperson offered another perspective to Michigan Public Radio: “I would implore my colleagues to ask yourself, when you’re accused of supporting the corporations at the expense of the working man, those that are accusing us of that – are they going to be wrong?”