The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, October 16, 2015

Some Dems push to tie road money with prevailing wage save

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

The statewide petition drive to abolish the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act of 1965 is continuing, as is the related public information campaign by the law's supporters and misinformation campaign by the Associated Builders and Contractors.

Prevailing wage is also simmering on the back-burner of the state Legislature, whether majority Republicans want it there or not.

That's because at least some state House Democrats have gone public in pledging to not  support any road funding plan unless it contains assurances that Republicans will not vote to repeal prevailing wage.

State Rep. Marilyn Lane (D-Fraser), the minority vice chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told news service MIRS that her message to state Republicans is that "one of my biggest concerns...I've been very, very clear about this, crystal clear . . . if prevailing wage (repeal) continues to stay on the table, then you lose all cooperation from me."

Lane and other Dems are linking sustaining the prevailing wage law with a road funding deal - as in, we can't have one without the other. To arguments that prevailing wage and road funding are separate issues, she told MIRS, "Prevailing wage has everything to do with construction work."

Republicans hold strong majorities in both the state Senate and House, and under nearly any other circumstance, they wouldn't need Democratic votes to advance any item on their agenda. But finding more money to fix the roads is proving to be a completely different animal. 

Senate Republicans have already passed a prevailing wage repeal bill this year, so that body is seen as a lost cause. But in the state House, there is a bloc of about 18-20 very conservative Republican lawmakers who simply will not vote to increase any taxes - even if Gov. Snyder has made finding more road money his top priority and the people of Michigan are demanding that the potholes finally be repaired.

So Republican leaders need Democratic votes to get new tax revenues to fix the roads. And at least some Dems seem to be more than willing to play politics if it means keeping prevailing wage. "I would never say I would withhold my vote on anything," said state Rep. Robert Kosowski (D-Westland) to MIRS. "But I can tell you it's going to be tough if they talk about prevailing wage. That's really one of my big sticking points."

Snyder and legislative leaders from both parties are working on a plan that looks like it would feature about $800 million in new revenue, while shifting about $400 million to the roads from other parts of the state budget. The Michigan Department of Transportation had called for at least $1.2 billion in additional road money every year to get roads to a decent level - an amount which has certainly risen since Snyder made repairing the roads his top priority five years ago.

Republican leaders, naturally, want to separate any road funding plan from prevailing wage. House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant) said he sees road funding and prevailing wage "as two totally separate issues." In January, leaders in both the state House and Senate pledged that repealing prevailing wage - not fixing the roads - is their top legislative priority this year. Gov. Snyder had strongly hinted that he would veto prevailing wage repeal, because he agrees with the state's building trades unions that the resulting lower wages would lower wages and drive people from the construction industry.

The petition drive to repeal prevailing wage, backed by the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors and allowed by the state Constitution, was likely the easiest way around Snyder's expected veto. But unless a deal can be struck with the anti-taxation Republicans, the road deal could be coming to a head at the worst possible time for the ABC and prevailing wage opponents.

If the state legislature doesn't have enough votes to repeal prevailing wage, the issue goes before the state voters on a statewide ballot in November 2016.

"We can't control what goes on in the negotiations between the Democrats and Republicans to get a road deal done," said Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Legislative Director Patrick "Shorty" Gleason. "We certainly don't want prevailing wage seen as the stumbling block to getting a roads deal in place. Ultimately our goal is to get the prevailing wage issue past the Legislature and make sure that it gets to a vote of the people in November 2016. That's simple and fair."