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Could anti-union petition effort hurt Michigan Republicans in 2018?

A petition campaign that collapsed in scandal last year is re-launching and some GOP leaders are concerned the issue could threaten Republican control over Lansing.

The state and a lot of local governments require construction companies to pay union-level wages in Michigan if they want to do work on taxpayer-funded projects. Some Republicans want that outlawed because it makes the work more expensive. Democrats say it’s just another Republican attack on unions.

But not even all Republicans are in agreement on this contentious issue. So, there was some consternation when non-unionized construction companies launched a petition drive last year to outlaw what’s called “prevailing wage.”

That effort collapsed in scandal after it was revealed the professional firm they hired turned in thousands of fake and duplicate signatures. But, now the non-union builders are back with a new petition drive to put a veto-proof proposal before the Legislature because Governor Rick Snyder is against the ban.

Snyder is trying to get more people interested in skilled trades careers and he says the ban on prevailing wage makes those jobs less attractive.

A successful petition campaign would put the question to the Legislature, which can then adopt a law that’s enacted without the governor’s signature. Failing that, the issue would go the ballot.  

The builders have reasons to be hopeful about their chances in the statehouse. The state Senate adopted almost the exact same bill in 2015, and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof says it would probably pass again, “it would be my intent to put it on the floor and put it up for a vote.”

Things are less certain in the state House, but the ban has the backing of Republican Speaker Tom Leonard, “personally, I do support repealing the prevailing wage, but that is not a conversation we’ve had as a caucus yet.”

But some GOP strategists are quietly urging restraint on prevailing wage.

First of all, there are some big GOP donors who are owners and executives at construction firms that use union labor. Second, President Donald Trump won Michigan in 2016 in part by appealing to blue-collar, union workers. Republicans would like to keep those voters heading into Election 2018. Going after their union wages is not exactly putting out the welcome mat.

And that matters because Trump didn’t so much breach the “blue wall” in the Midwest last year as inch over it. And the party in the White House typically suffers in the first mid-term after the presidential election.

Now, should the builders turn in enough signatures to get their issue before the Legislature, they could adopt it. They could also ignore it and let the question go on the 2018 ballot.

Which would then make it an election issue, but also one where GOP candidates can read the temperature of their districts before they take a position - or avoid it.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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