LANSING, MI — While construction workers restored the Michigan Capitol this summer, a fight over guaranteed wages on government building projects was taking place on street corners all over the state.
A business-backed group working to repeal Michigan's 1965 prevailing wage law was busy circulating petitions, and organizers say they are close to completing the signature gathering phase — well ahead of schedule.
"We are thrilled by the positive response we've had," said Chris Fisher, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan and a member of Protect Michigan Taxpayers (PMT).
"We are beating the time frame that has been put in place before us by state law. We have support from House Speaker Kevin Cotter and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, and that forms a very powerful combination."
Michigan's prevailing wage law requires contractors to provide workers with union-scale wages and benefits on state-funded construction projects, such as schools and government buildings.
Critics say the law inflates costs on projects that utilize taxpayer dollars and puts Michigan at a competitive disadvantage compared to states that have scrapped their own versions.
Supporters say it guarantees fair wages and promotes quality work that will provide a better bargain in the long run.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder opposes efforts to repeal the law — he's said it could hurt his push to promote careers in the skilled trades — but a provision in the state constitution may allow the petition drive to cut him out of the process completely.
By collecting at least 252,523 signatures in a 180-day window, PMT can send its repeal bill to the GOP-led Legislature, which could vote to enact it into law without a signature from Snyder.
Organizers are asking paid and volunteer circulators to turn in petitions by the end of this week. They could wrap up work in two or three weeks, according to Fisher, who said the group will vet signatures before turning them in to the Secretary of State.
Shorty Gleason, legislative director of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, opposes the prevailing wage repeal effort and has been urging residents to "decline to sign" petitions.
He believes petition circulators misled residents about what they were signing, but he is preparing for the next phase of the fight, when lawmakers will have 40 days to take up the bill or let it go to the ballot.
"We're asking representatives and senators not to take a position on it," Gleason said. "Just let the people decide, because most people sign a petition to vote on it, not to let the Legislature repeal a law."
That may be a tough task.
Republican majorities in both chambers began the year by introducing repealing wage repeal bills. The state Senate approved a three-bill package in May, although it could be a much closer vote in the House. Cotter and Meekhof have both indicated they're willing to go around the governor on the issue.
It's a decades-old fight, according to Gleason, who argued that repealing the prevailing wage law would allow contractors to "exploit" labor for profit, ultimately discouraging residents from making a career in the construction industry.
"We work in all kinds of weather, adverse conditions, sometimes defying gravity to get a job done. And to have somebody take a stand and say you aren't worth anything more than minimum wage? That's insulting," he said.
The prevailing wage repeal effort got tied up in road funding talks last week, when Detroit Caucus chair and state Rep. Brian Banks said Democrats would be unlikely to provide any votes so long as petitions were in the field.
Banks proposed a truce between business and labor, suggesting a scenario where PMT would end its prevailing wage petition drive and a union group would end its own petition drive to fund road repairs by raising Michigan's Corporate Income Tax.
That wasn't going to happen, according to Fisher, who said he was contacted by the media to discuss the idea, but never an actual legislator.
"The only thing divisive about prevailing wage is the harm that it does to taxpayers and overall construction employment," he said. "It's not going to be intermixed with any other issues. It's a standalone issue."
Fisher anticipates continued support from majority leaders in the state Legislature, and he's hoping that prevailing wage will be off the books by the end of the year.
"It's a win-win for everybody," he said. "It will mean more jobs for workers, taxpayers won't be forced to overspend, and there will be more construction investment to build and expand."
PMT, which initially formed to fight a series of ballot measures in 2012, has raised more than $1 million for the prevailing wage repeal effort.
The Michigan Freedom Fund, which has ties to the powerful DeVos family, had donated roughly $360,000 through the end of July. The national Construction Legal Rights Foundation donated $310,000, ABC gave close to $300,000 and McKinley Associates of Ann Arbor contributed $55,000.
Protect Michigan Jobs, a group formed to oppose the petition drive, had not reported any direct contributions or spending through July 20. Another group, Michigan Prevails, has created a website to tout the benefits of the current law.