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Governor and Legislature may go "eyeball to eyeball" over repeal of prevailing wage law

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Secretary of State Dean Rusk once said, “we’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”

What he meant was that the Soviet Union was supposedly backing down from a dangerously escalating situation.

Well, the stakes are much smaller in Lansing, but it appears that the governor and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature are going into an "eyeball to eyeball" confrontation. And this time, it isn’t clear if anyone will blink.

The issue is over prevailing wage.

That’s a requirement that construction workers on state projects be paid union scale wages and fringe benefits, whether they are in a union or not.

Getting rid of prevailing wage so that workers can be paid much less has been a longtime goal of Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive. He claims the state could save hundreds of millions if this happens.

Others disagree.

Naturally, unions are against this repeal, but major construction companies oppose it as well.

Naturally, unions are against this repeal, but major construction companies oppose it as well.

There was a time in the 1990s when the Legislature did suspend prevailing wage rules. Barton Malow is a huge, now nationwide, construction management firm founded in Detroit.

Last week, a senior executive of the company told the Gongwer News Service, “I never want to return to those days,” when they didn’t have prevailing wage.

What happened then was bidding public work became all about "… how cheap could a contractor bid for work."

What happened then, he and others said, was that many reputable contractors didn’t bother to bid. In the end, cost overruns meant the state was often paying as much for work that may not have been as reliable.

But Meekhof has long vowed to push a bill repealing prevailing wage through the Senate. And last week, he did, though five members of his caucus deserted him to vote no.

Among them was Senator Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba.

He told his fellow senators, “I implore my colleagues to ask themselves, when you’re accused of supporting the corporations in place of the working man … are you?”

The bill now goes to the House, where Democrats, while still a minority, are stronger than in the Senate.

But House Republicans are generally more conservative than those in the Senate. If Democrats hold firm there, nine Republicans would have to defect to defeat the repeal of prevailing wage. Though he won’t say so publicly, that is exactly what Rick Snyder must be hoping will happen.

Because otherwise, someone has to blink.

The governor has made it very clear that he opposes repealing prevailing wage and has hinted strongly that he will veto such a bill if one reaches his desk.

Senate Leader Meekhof seemed to be almost openly taunting the governor last week.

But would he?

Senate Leader Meekhof seemed to be almost openly taunting the governor last week, noting that Snyder at first opposed right-to-work, and then came to support it. Clearly, if a prevailing wage bill reaches Snyder’s desk, it will be as clear a test of wills as you can imagine between the governor and the Legislature.

My guess is that the governor will have to cast a veto.

Otherwise, he will be seen as essentially impotent for the balance of his term, and regardless of what happens, many voters will be left wishing the Legislature was as passionate about fixing the roads.

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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