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Michigan lawmakers a step closer to referendum-proof repeal of prevailing wage law

May 14, 2015

Construction pit.
Credit Christopher Peplin / Flickr

The state Senate has voted to ban prevailing wage requirements in Michigan. Those laws mandate union-level pay and benefits for workers on publicly-funded construction projects.

Supporters of Senate Bills 12, and 3 say prevailing wage artificially drives up the cost of taxpayer-funded projects, and repealing it would save the state and communities millions of dollars every year.

“Taxpayers will pay less for their schools, pay less expensive price tags for construction, which means our communities – which are financing this – will be financing less, saving taxpayer money over the life of the entire asset,” said state Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive.

But opponents say it would mean a big pay cut for thousands of working families.

“We should be fighting for them, not attacking their wages,” said state Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-Lansing.

State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, was one of five Republicans who joined Democrats in opposing the legislation.

“I would implore my colleagues to ask yourself, when you’re accused of supporting the corporations at the expense of the working man, those that are accusing us of that – are they going to be wrong?” said Casperson.

The bills now go to the state House. It’s not clear whether they’ll have enough support there to get to the governor’s desk.

Gov. Rick Snyder has said he opposes repealing prevailing wage – in part because he believes it would hurt his initiative to attract more workers to skilled trades.

Did Smith’s absence seal the deal for referendum-proof repeal?

Democrats offered an amendment on the state Senate floor Thursday that would have stripped out a spending provision in the legislation. That appropriation means the prevailing wage repeal could not be subject to a voter referendum if it becomes law.

The amendment was not adopted on an 18-19 vote, with all Democrats and a number of Republicans voting in favor of taking the spending provision out.

Sen. Virgil Smith, D-Detroit, was absent from session Thursday after he was arrested earlier this week and held on felony assault and firearms charges. If he had been present, many expect he would have voted in favor of the amendment with his fellow Democrats, causing the vote to tie 19-19.

In the event of a tie, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley (R) casts the deciding vote. It is not clear which way Calley would have voted on the amendment. But considering Gov. Snyder’s opposition to repealing prevailing wage, it is possible the amendment could have been adopted in that scenario – making the legislation subject to referendum.

*This post has been updated.