The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, October 02, 2015

Trades push for hands off prevailing wage in exchange for road funding support

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING - Republicans and perhaps some Democrats in the state Legislature are looking to pass a "clean" bill that permanently provides Michigan with hundreds of millions of dollars for road repairs.

On the other hand, Michigan's building trades unions would like nothing better than to gum up the works a bit in an effort to sustain the state's Prevailing Wage Act of 1965.

A clean bill would take the form of an up-or-down vote on allocating road repair money - without any additional "riders," or add-on legislation. But the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council is actively lobbying Democratic legislators not to support road repair legislation unless their yes vote comes with a pledge by a sufficient number of GOP lawmakers not to support a prevailing wage repeal bill that's likely to come before them after a petition drive is complete in November. 

"We will do whatever we can to sustain the state's prevailing wage law," said Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Legislative Director Patrick "Shorty" Gleason. "And we are looking for support anywhere we can find it among state legislators. We're standing firm, and we've made it very clear to Democratic lawmakers that there's no reason for them to help Republicans vote on the roads if they also want to repeal prevailing wage."

Protect Michigan Taxpayers, a group fronted by the Associated Builders and Contractors and funded by deep-pocketed backers like the Devos family of Grand Rapids, has raised more than $1 million to push a petition drive seeking to repeal the state Prevailing Wage Act. Last month they announced that they had gathered more than 390,000 signatures, while needing only 252,000.

If the Secretary of State approves the signatures, the repeal question goes before the state Legislature for a vote. The state Constitution, which allows this method of petition-driven lawmaking, specifically excludes a governor's veto from this process. The building trades are banking on lobbying - now tied to the prevailing wage repeal effort - urging the Legislature to vote no on the issue. If prevailing wage repeal doesn't pass the Legislature, the matter is then placed before Michigan voters on the November 2016 ballot.

While the state Senate earlier this year voted to repeal prevailing wage, the state House never voted on the matter, no doubt concerned that Gov. Rick Snyder would wield a likely veto. That's when the petition drive came into play.

State Rep. David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights), the assistant Democratic Floor Leader, said while he couldn't speak on behalf of the Dem caucus, he believes that "everything is on the table" during negotiations concerning a road repair package. "We want to make sure that prevailing wage is part of everything we talk about in Lansing during the road funding debate, or in any other substantive conversation," he said, "because we know how important it is to Michigan."

Back when he was elected five years ago, Snyder made finding at least $1.2 billion in annual road repair money one of his top priorities. But the state Legislature, even though it's led by large majorities of Republicans in both the House and Senate, has been unable to come up with a funding plan. A bloc of 16 GOP lawmakers has signed a no new taxes pledge - which, in theory, anyway - takes a potential gasoline tax increase off the table.

Those ultra-conservative lawmakers believe that much of the road money can be found by cutting the state's general fund budget, which would likely mean further cuts to education and local city services. So, looking for votes, slightly-more-practical Republican leaders have made overtures to Democratic lawmakers, asking what it would take to get them to support a road repair funding package that includes new revenues from higher taxes.

A Sept. 17 report by the MIRS News Service said that leaders on both sides of the aisle "are largely avoiding satellite topics" like prevailing wage during the transportation funding negotiations. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) told MIRS that side issues like sustaining prevailing wage will "have to be sold on their own."

Senate Majority Leader Jim Ananich was a bit more cagey with MIRS, leaving the door open to negotiations about prevailing wage. "I don't think we can add a bunch of extra things in the bill," he told MIRS. "We need to make sure it's about roads . . . there may be a handful of some other things, but not too much more."

Gleason pointed out that last January, GOP leaders in both the state House and Senate made prevailing wage repeal their top priority. That priority put them in line with the agenda of national conservative groups and campaign contributors like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Koch Brothers, but not so much with the average Michigan resident, who has no idea what prevailing wage is, but knows what a pothole looks like.

"Our roads are in terrible condition, and the governor knows it, and the people of Michigan know it, and have demanded that the Legislature do something about it," Gleason said. "So what was the GOP Legislature's top priority? It wasn't fixing the roads, it was repealing prevailing wage and lowering wages. This shows that they're serving out-of-state interests like ALEC, rather than what's good for the people in Michigan.

"We can't lose focus on this. The priorities of the state GOP are lowering wages while our roads continue to get worse."