The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, September 04, 2015

Road deal fails, but is prevailing wage save in the mix?

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING - A deal to pass a long-awaited road funding bill failed, again, in the state Legislature, as lawmakers wrapped up a short summertime session on Aug. 20 without agreeing on any funding mechanism.

The legislative puzzle of finding at least $1.2 billion every year in new road repair money appears no closer to being solved than it was when Gov. Rick Snyder made finding the money his top priority in his first term in office. But in some potentially good news for the building trades, there are rumblings that Democratic lawmakers are pushing to have Michigan's Prevailing Wage Act preserved in return for their support of a Republican-sponsored road repair package.

Democrats are not even close to a majority in either the state House or Senate. But there's a strong contingent of far-right lawmakers in both of those legislative bodies, especially in the House, who want nothing to do with additional gas taxes or user-fees to fund the additional road work - they want to take the money out of existing tax revenues. So, that has pushed the more moderate GOP lawmakers toward Democrats, looking for votes to support Snyder's plan for road funding, which does involve hiking gas taxes.

"Democrats in the minority were trying to extract assurances from Republican leaders that they would not approve a voter-initiated repeal of Michigan’s prevailing wage law," said a Detroit News article.

As we have reported, the state Senate earlier this year adopted legislation that would repeal the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act of 1965. House Republican leadership then dropped the legislation from their docket when it became apparent that Gov. Rick Snyder would veto the measure. Snyder has said that the construction industry has enough difficulty attracting people without lowering wages.

That prompted the formation of a statewide petition drive, led by the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors, which could repeal prevailing wage via a little-used method allowed by the state Constitution. If the ABC and their big-money conservative backers get enough signatures - and it appears as if they will - then the question of prevailing wage repeal goes directly to a vote of the state Legislature. Gov. Snyder and his potential veto are left out of the process. If the Legislature does not enact the petition language into law, the question of prevailing wage repeal would automatically go on a statewide ballot for a vote in November 2016.

Further complicating matters, the Michigan Regional Carpenters Council. Michigan Laborers and Operating Engineers Local 324 last month announced the start of a petition drive that would alter tax rates and force corporations to pay the bulk of any road funding plan. If enough signatures are gathered, that plan would also land on the November 2016 ballot.

Last month, state Rep. Brian Banks (D-Harper Woods) sponsored a resolution that would provide Democratic votes to support a road funding plan in exchange for sponsors of the ballot issues to call off their efforts. “We want to make sure that prevailing wage is addressed so that labor can be comfortable and neutral as it relates to moving ahead,” Banks said.

Added state Rep. Alberta Tinsley Talabi (D-Detroit): “We can fix our roads without increasing the burden on workers and families who may already be stretching their paychecks to make ends meet. We look forward to working with our Republican colleagues to craft the best plan that will take care of our roads and our citizens.”

So far the differences between separate House and Senate road funding adopted earlier this year have been insurmountable. The Senate plan would raise $1.5 billion and include a significant hike in the state gas tax. A $1.16 billion plan from the House would rely on money from existing revenues and tax cuts.

Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Legislative Director Patrick "Shorty" Gleason said there has been reason all along for some optimism that the state's prevailing wage law could be saved from repeal, at least in the Legislature. Republicans enjoy a 63-47 majority in the state House, but Gleason pointed out that there are 15 Republicans who have signed "no new tax" pledges, which could make it difficult to get enough support for a road repair package that involve a gas tax hike.

"The way it looks we're optimistic they're going to need a significant number of votes from Democrats," Gleason said. He said throughout the anti-prevailing wage petition process this summer, the building trades' goal has been to work with GOP lawmakers to make sure the petition isn't decided in the Legislature, but ends up decided by a vote of the people in November 2016.

"After all, isn't that what people are doing when they sign that petition? Gleason asked. "Aren't they signing because they want to give the people a chance to vote on it?"