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The fight over prevailing wage isn't a classic 'right vs. left' battle

Jack Lessenberry

Well, if you’ve been following the news from Lansing, it seems likely that the Legislature will soon vote to eliminate what’s known as "prevailing wage," which is the requirement that the state pay union-scale wages to workers on state construction projects.

This has long been a cause championed by State Senate Majority Leader ArlanMeekhof, R-West Olive, who seems to hate unions. Those supporting this idea say it would save Michigan hundreds of millions of dollars.

But those opposed say it would do no such thing, that it will create bottlenecks and delays and risk shoddy and unsafe construction on state buildings.

Those supporting this idea say it would save Michigan hundreds of millions of dollars.

You might think at first glance this is a classic conservative vs. liberal issue, but it isn’t.

Governor Rick Snyder is dead set against repealing the prevailing wage requirement, and has indicated that he’ll veto any bill that does so, if he gets the chance. Many other Republicans more conservative also support prevailing wage, including Rick Santorum and Paul Ryan, the last Republican vice-presidential nominee.

You might think major contractors like Barton Malow would want to get rid of prevailing wage, but you’d be wrong.

In May, Mike Stobak, one of their vice-presidents, testified before a State Senate subcommittee. He reminded the senators that the prevailing wage law was briefly suspended in the 1990s, and that was a disaster. Fewer contractors bid on state projects. Workers often left contractors in the middle of a project, causing concerns about quality.

"Please, let's avoid the temptation to take the easy route and return to what we know is a failed approach." - Mike Stobak, Barton Marlow

Stobak told the legislators, “Please, let’s avoid the temptation to take the easy route and return to what we know is a failed approach.”

But there are many people who want to pay workers less regardless, including the DeVos family of Grand Rapids.

When it was clear the governor wasn’t going to support repealing prevailing wage, a group called Protecting Michigan Taxpayers swung into action. According to Bridge Magazine, the group was heavily financed by the Michigan Freedom Fund, which has close ties to the DeVos family, and a Lansing-based trade group that includes mostly non-union contractors.

Once bankrolled, Protecting Michigan Taxpayers launched a petition drive to collect enough signatures to get a ballot initiative repealing prevailing wage.

They’ve now turned in those signatures, and early indications are that they have more than enough. Now, in a case like this, an odd quirk in Michigan law allows the Legislature to avoid this getting on the ballot by enacting into law what the initiative calls for within 40 days.

And when the Legislature does that with an initiative petition, the governor doesn’t get a chance to veto it.

If they don’t enact the initiative, it then goes on next year’s ballot. Which, by the way, is precisely what those behind the petition drive don’t want, even though they collected signatures to do just that.

Putting this on the ballot could spark a massive turnout of pro-union voters who would try to defeat it, and who would vote mostly for Democrats running for office. The state senate is certain to vote to get rid of prevailing wage, but the initiative’s prospects are a little less certain in the House.

Democrats have more strength there, and a few Republicans may not want to anger the state’s construction workers in an election year. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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