New crop of lawmakers the latest threat to Michigan prevailing wage

LANSING, Mich. – There’s a good chance that a lid will be kept on incessant calls from some within the Michigan Republican caucus to repeal the state Prevailing Wage Act in the state legislature’s lame duck session, which will wrap up some time in December.

Next year, however, may be a whole different ballgame. And there is still one long-shot possibility that the prevailing wage could be in danger this month: If some of the ruling Republicans decide to attach it to infrastructure improvements.

Repeal of the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act of 1965 would be a coup for “limited government” conservatives, and a devastating blow to the state’s construction industry, both union and nonunion. 

The state’s law is based on the federal Davis-Bacon Act, which requires the payment of local wages that “prevail” in a given area on taxpayer-funded projects.  Both the state and federal laws prevent contractors from winning construction contracts by employing lower-paid, out-of-area workers to undermine bids by local contractors.

Prevailing wage keeps local workers off of public assistance, and recycles income workers make throughout their community, through the payment of local tax dollars and visits to restaurants, shops and car dealerships.

In September, the current Republican leaders, House Speaker Jase Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, shrugged off any chance that the state’s prevailing wage law would be repealed in 2014. Richardville said he had “no interest” in pursuing prevailing wage this year, and Bolger said much the same.

But neither Richardville nor Bolger will be in office next year.  Both are term-limited.  Now meet the new bosses. They’re not the same as the old bosses.

The GOP caucus elected Sen. Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, majority leader, as Richardville’s replacement.  Rep. Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, will replace Bolger in the speaker’s chair.

There’s no word yet on how Cotter feels about prevailing wage repeal, but Meekhof told MIRS News Service that he thinks repeal is good public policy, so even if repeal is not taken up in 2014 it could make an appearance next year.

Meekhof, an arch-conservative who was a sponsor of Michigan’s right-to-work law, also sponsored a three-bill package last year that all dealt with repealing prevailing wage.

Meekhof reminded that he, not Richardville, will call the tune in 2015.  In what is perhaps a bit of evil foreshadowing, Meekhof said: “He (Richardville) is the majority leader until the end of the year, and the majority leader will set the agenda.”

And with numerous new lawmakers coming to Lansing in the new session, there’s no way to know how the political winds will be blowing.

“The way I see things at this point, I’m optimistic, I think they’re looking at reforming prevailing wage, rather than outright repeal,” said Patrick “Shorty” Gleason, legislative director for the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council.  “Reform” is not necessarily a bad thing as far as the trades are concerned, as it could involve updating wage surveys, improving awareness of the law among lawmakers and possibly even improving enforcement, he said.

“With all the new legislators we’re going to be doing a full-court press, along with our contractors, to educate them about why the law is in place, and why it’s a benefit to the state,” Gleason said.

And where does re-elected Republican Gov. Rick Snyder stand on prevailing wage repeal?  What he has said sounds a lot like what he said about signing right-to-work legislation in 2012:  He said RTW wasn’t on his agenda, and then he put it on his agenda by signing it into law after a lame-duck session rushed it through.

“Prevailing wage repeal is “a very divisive issue, so I would say it’s not something that we’re working on,” the governor said last year.  At another point his spokesman said: “This is not at all an issue we are looking at or working on.” We shall see.

Jonathan Byrd, legislative director of the Michigan Laborers District Council, said it is going to be important for individual building trades workers to stand up for their law – the single most important rule on Michigan’s books that bolsters workers’ incomes.

“There are lots of new folks in the legislature in 2015,” Byrd said. “It’s really key for people to reach out to their legislator and let them know how they feel about the value of prevailing wage, and what it means to their community.”

But the far right may steal a march on workers by trading road funding for prevailing wage repeal this month, a pro-worker blog reports.  That’s even though the GOP will have super-majorities in both houses of the legislature next year.

While infrastructure looks to be a central focus of the state’s GOP – something labor officials are excited about – it is possible that 30 retiring legislators will use their last days in office to try to repeal the prevailing wage laws in return, the blog reports.  That’s something labor officials fiercely oppose.

Political analyst Bill Ballenger told prevailing wage repeal “has been a long-sought goal of the business community and conservative Republicans over the years.”

Richardville told that he is not interested in repealing the law and does not expect the law to be taken up in the lame duck session.  That prompted Meekhof’s retort.  And while Meekhof, too, says the issue is not on his agenda, his promise is as much cause for concern as it is a comfort.  Snyder famously uttered those very words before signing off on “right-to-work” legislation two lame duck sessions ago.

On the positive side, roads became a central theme of the 2014 elections and the GOP understands that if they do not take action at year’s end they will have to answer to constituents when they return from Lansing to their districts.  The state has some of the worst roads in the U.S.

But in Michigan – as in Washington, D.C. – the question is where to find the money, given the hate-taxes ideology of the GOP’s Tea Party’ers.

Bridge Magazine laid out the situation facing both Michigan lawmakers and drivers: “Michigan spends less per capita on its roads than any other state in the nation. Michigan spends $174 per person annually on transportation. Our neighbors in Illinois and Ohio each spend $235. Minnesota spends $315.”

A majority of the public is willing to pay more in taxes for better roads, according to polling and community conversations sponsored by The Center for Michigan, a nonpartisan think-tank which publishes the magazine.

“The state doesn’t have $1 billion (the amount Snyder says is needed) lying around in its couch cushions, and there’s little agreement about where to find the money,” it adds.

“Snyder has proposed an increase in the gas tax and in auto registration fees, but that will be an even tougher sell in 2015 with additional Tea Party members in the legislature.  That’s one reason Snyder, less than 12 hours after being re-elected, said he would push for road funding in the lame duck session, with the hopes that term-limited legislators who didn’t want to raise taxes before the election will be willing to do so now,” the center explained.

State Rep. Bill Rogers concurred that roads will be the major issue, although he does not know if the lame duck lawmakers will find answers to the complex issue of financing road projects.  “I expect there will be something done about roads.  I don’t know if we’ll come up with a 100 percent solution, but we could provide a start for those coming in,” he says.

For Democrats and construction workers, passage of a roads bill in the lame duck session may be more favorable than the framework being created by the next group of legislators.  The concern is the Far Right will cite the $1 billion needed to improve Michigan roads as a reason to repeal the prevailing wage in the name of offsetting costs.

Ballenger expects any attempt at repeal to bring a swift and strong response from the left.  He told Michigan Radio: “If Republicans move to repeal prevailing wage, they can expect unions to react the same way they did to the passage of the right-to-work law and bring cries of bloody murder from the Democrats if that happens.”

Photo: Michigan construction workers are not content with promises from Rick Snyder that killing the statre’s prevailing wage law is not on his agenda. They note that this has been a long time goal of the now-ruling state Republicans. | Ken Stevens/AP & The Muskegon Chronicle


Marty Mulcahy
Marty Mulcahy

Marty Mulcahy is the managing editor of The Building Tradesman.