The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, January 11, 2019

Year-end legislative action: could have been worse for workers


LANSING - With the state's Republican stranglehold on state politics ending on Jan. 1 with the swearing-in of newly elected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, GOP lawmakers sent a whopping 408 bills to the desk of outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder during the year-end lame-duck session.

Among the bills was a mix of good and bad news for workers and organized labor - and in most cases the good news could only be called that because it involved bad legislation that wasn't signed into law. 

Republican lawmakers, said Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber last month, "on their way out of office, are rushing to curb the impact of pro-democracy ballot measures that voters overwhelmingly passed and are gutting the pay raises and paid sick leave legislation they promised just before the election. This lame duck session leaves no doubt of their disdain for the voters, and that their tenure in office has been to do the bidding of corporate special interests at the expense of the hard-working families of Michigan."

Following is some of what went on in the state Capitol Building in the waning days of 2018.

Union re-certification dies. After adopting the state's right-to-work law in December 2012 and allowing the repeal of the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act last year, few thought the state's Republican legislature could do much more to strangle Michigan's unions. Wrong.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-Grand Haven) introduced a measure that would have required public employee unions to recertify with their membership - in other words, hold an election to determine if their union should exist - every two years. 

The legislation died in committee - primarily because police and fire unions strenuously objected. The state Legislature "carved out" public safety unions from being affected by the state's right-to-work law in 2012, but this year, there apparently wasn't the time, will or energy among GOP lawmakers to do the same. "We don’t have the votes ready to do that one," Meekhof said. "But a number of returning senators who really want to do this will pick it up” in 2019.

Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth argued against the proposed union recertification rules. "If this bill passes, I guarantee it will create significant internal chaos in our organizations that could possibly or would possibly affect our ability to deal with… external chaos,” Wriggelsworth told The Detroit News.

Minimum wage increase watered down. A successful petition drive completed in September last year was supposed to place on the Nov. 6 statewide ballot a measure that would increase the state's minimum wage law to $12 per hour by 2022. The Republican-led state Legislature intercepted that petition drive before it reached the ballot, passing the same language into law with the intention of weakening it during the lame duck session. And they did weaken it: with Snyder's signature, they pushed that $12 per-hour increase back eight years, making it fully effective in 2030. 

And in the near-term, the current $9.25 per hour minimum wage would have been raised to $10 per hour on Jan. 1. Under the citizen's petition, instead it only went up to $9.45.

Sick leave legislation reduced, also. This similar citizens petition effort was also hijacked by the state GOP. Snyder signed into law a watered-down, more business-friendly plan than what would have been imposed  by the petition drive. The petition language would have allowed employees to accrue one hour of leave time for every 30 hours worked (increased to 35 by the GOP), and it required employers to offer up to 72 hours of paid sick leave per year (the GOP language reduced that to 40 hours). 

The citizen-backed law required businesses with fewer than 10 employees to offer at least 40 hours of paid sick leave, with another 32 hours of unpaid leave. The law adopted by Republicans does not apply to businesses with fewer than 50 employees. 

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which pushed strongly for modifications to the petition efforts, said "the impact of this legislation on employers is far broader than providing 72 hours paid hours of sick leave per year to employees. As written, the proposal places severe compliance burdens on employers, including those with paid leave policies currently in place."

The overturning of the citizen-backed petitions will certainly be subject to a lawsuit probing the validity of the Legislature's actions.

Commenting on the GOP intercepting the petition drives was House Democratic Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing). “Eight years of failed Republican leadership forced thousands of Michiganders to come together and demand rights the Legislature had been denying them, It was the victory of every working family in Michigan when those demands were answered with the passage of these two proposals in September — and it is their loss now that Republicans have decided to undermine their will and gut these initiatives. Everyone deserves the freedom to earn a strong paycheck and take care of their family without jeopardizing their economic security, and it is disgraceful they’ve been denied that today by a majority that decided to once again side with their wealthy special interest friends instead of the people of this state.”

Gerrymandering "correction" fails. A petition effort that did make it to the Nov. 6 ballot was easily adopted by voters - the establishment of a bipartisan, independent commission that will oversee the re-drawing of district lines. A bill to correct the language in that law would have created criteria to determine how the members and staff of the line-drawing Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission are chosen. 

The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Phil Pavlov (R-St. Clair Shores) and was adopted by the state Senate, but it died in the House. Pavlov said the bill would have created “additional safeguards to protect the integrity of the independent redistricting commission."

But Nancy Wang, the board president of Voters Not Politicians, the group which sponsored the successful petition drive, said “this bill is unconstitutional on its face, it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars and it’s a blatant, politically-motivated effort."

State Republicans completely controlled the redistricting process in Michigan in 2010, which led to the drawing of some crazily-shaped districts designed to provide maximum success for their candidates. Democrats have howled at the unfair lines, but few would deny that they would do the same thing if given the opportunity.  

More road money. The state Legislature shifted income tax revenue toward road repairs - to the tune of $114 million in 2019 up to $178 million in 2021. Of course, any additional road money is welcome in a state whose transportation director says under-funds road repairs every year by $2 billion.

However, Michigan Democrats pointed out that the money is being shifted from the School Aid Fund- which they say is another chronically under-funded state department.

Republicans said the losses in the School Aid Fund would be offset by increased sales tax revenues generated from online sales, now allowed by a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.