Group against Michigan's prevailing wage asks to skip signature review

A showdown Tuesday may determine whether a drive to repeal Michigan prevailing wage law can be decided by lawmakers, rather than voters.

June 2018: Michigan Republicans repeal prevailing wage law
Update: Michigan prevailing wage law repeal petition will undergo second signature review

A group trying to repeal Michigan’s prevailing wage law is attempting what state elections officials call an “unprecedented” step to send its proposal to lawmakers — asking the state to certify its ballot petition even though it’s unclear whether the group collected enough valid signatures to qualify.

The ballot committee, Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, hopes the Board of State Canvassers takes its side during a Tuesday meeting so its proposal to repeal the prevailing wage law could advance directly to a friendly Legislature for consideration without a second look at its signature count, and without voters having a chance to weigh in this November.

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The state’s Bureau of Elections is fighting the effort, arguing that the bureau should first be given time to conduct a larger review of the signatures collected.

Protecting Michigan Taxpayers fell three signatures short of the number it needed to automatically qualify for the November ballot on the state’s first random sampling of signatures. Elections staff have asked state canvassers to allow a second, larger sample to answer any questions about whether petition circulators gathered at least 252,523 valid signatures from registered Michigan voters — the required threshold for citizen-initiated bills.

“Staff recommends that the Board (sic) maintain the signature review procedures and follow the established, statistically sound random sampling methodology,” elections staff wrote in a briefing memo.

Here’s why Protecting Michigan Taxpayers’ argument is significant: Most ballot proposals in circulation are aiming to appear on the November ballot, when statewide voters will get to choose. At least two proposals, related to decriminalizing recreational use of marijuana and redrawing legislative districts, also have submitted signatures to the state for review. All certified citizen legislative proposals go to the Legislature first, and are sent to the ballot only if lawmakers vote them down or do nothing.

While the Republican-dominated Legislature has no appetite for legalizing pot or redrawing legislative districts that favor the GOP, lawmakers would jump at the chance to repeal the labor-friendly prevailing wage law.

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Gov. Rick Snyder opposes repealing the state law that requires union-scale wages and benefits be paid on public building projects, arguing that it would undercut his administration’s efforts to recruit more Michiganders into skilled trades careers.

But should the Legislature get an opportunity to pass the citizen-driven legislation before it went to voters, that decision would be veto-proof.

Labor unions representing building trades and other industries that support the prevailing wage law know this, and are pushing to get the proposal disqualified for having too few valid signatures. Repealing prevailing wage was kept off the November 2016 ballot for that reason.

Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, in its petition to the state, said some of the signatures reviewed in the first round were tossed out for “imperfect” handwriting; the group argues that the Bureau of Elections should adopt a more generous, “common sense approach” when it comes to determining validity.

The group’s petition argues that the elections bureau would be wasting resources conducting a second signature review and should instead resolve questionable signatures in favor of allowing them.

“Any other determination by the Bureau is a departure from previous standards and tantamount to voter disenfranchisement,” the petition says.

Protect Michigan Jobs, the union-backed group trying to stave off repeal, argued in its own petition to the state that the pro-repeal group should have no problem with a larger sample being drawn if its signatures are indeed valid.

Approval of Protecting Michigan Taxpayers’ argument would “critically undermine the integrity of the entire initiative process,” the anti-repeal group wrote.

As a practical matter, the state cannot review hundreds of thousands of ballot petition signatures. It instead audits a random sample of signatures and then extrapolates from that sample whether the measure has enough support to get on the statewide ballot. A first sample of 535 signatures for Protecting Michigan Taxpayers’ proposal turned up 370 valid ones, just short of the 373 needed for the proposal to automatically qualify for the ballot.

The elections bureau called the result “inconclusive,” saying a larger sample is needed to ensure “acceptable confidence” that the proposal meets requirements.

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