Here's the Upcoming Political Drama in Michigan

Prevailing wage, the May 5 ballot proposal and energy are all on the table

To an extent, the table already seems set in terms of what’s likely to be on the political menu in 2015. While the new Legislature is still in its organizational phase, Michigan Capitol Confidential asked four Lansing political observers a few questions concerning some key issues. The following are the questions, and their responses.

Republicans in both the Michigan House and Senate have established repealing the state’s prevailing wage law as their top priority, while Gov. Rick Snyder is opposed to repealing it. Are there any realistic scenarios under which the Legislature might persuade the governor to relent and sign legislation to repeal the prevailing wage law?

“The key word here is ‘realistic,’” said Inside Michigan Politics Founder Bill Ballenger. “If Proposal 1 fails at the ballot box on May 5, then I would expect to see a prevailing wage repeal finding its way to the governor's desk. Would he sign it? Possibly, if he feels he hasn't gotten the cooperation from organized labor on Proposal 1 that he expected, or if he's decided that repealing the prevailing wage wouldn't harm his efforts to boost job opportunities for the skilled trades.”

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“Possible deal: Prop. 1 fails, and a Republican legislature sends Snyder a ‘road fix’ compromise deal attached to a repeal of prevailing wage,” Ballenger added.

Mark Grebner of East Lansing-based Practical Political Consulting said Gov. Snyder told legislative Democrats he wouldn’t sign legislation to repeal the prevailing wage and it is a promise they expect him to keep.

‘’Persuasion is the wrong idea,” Grebner said. “The Dems extorted a promise from Gov. Snyder, and I assume they didn't leave any room for ambiguity or flexibility. Unless he completely renounces his private assurances, he has no choice but to try to talk to death the idea of repeal of prevailing wage as long as it's pending in the Legislature, and to use his veto if the bill reaches his desk.”

“I don't know if they exchanged hostages, but I'm sure the Dems don't expect him to renege,” Grebner continued. “And given the governor's pussy-footing about right-to-work, guaranteeing against reneging certainly had to be front and center during their discussions.”

Dennis Darnoi of Farmington Hills-based Densar Consulting said that, unless the Legislature can force him to use the measure as a bargaining chip, Gov. Snyder probably won’t budge on his refusal to sign legislation that repeals the prevailing wage.

“The administration may have one or two priority items that the Legislature could use as leverage to get a repeal of the prevailing wage signed into law,” Darnoi said. “Absent that kind of negotiation, it is highly unlikely the governor would relent on his own accord. The bigger mystery is; will the Republican-led Legislature actually force the governor’s hand and present him with a bill to sign or veto?”

Political Strategist Bob Kolt, of Okemos-based Kolt Communications, said he believes the governor means it when he says ‘no' to repealing the prevailing wage.

“I don't think there’s a way to make him change his stance on this,” Kolt said. “The governor has announced his position and likely won't change. It's a warning to lawmakers not to bring up the issue.”

The proposal to hike the state’s sales tax from 6 to 7 percent, to more or less ratify the deal on road funding struck between the governor and the Legislature during the December lame duck session, is scheduled to be on the statewide ballot on May 5. If you were a proponent of the proposal, would you be hoping for a large voter turnout on May 5, or a small one?

“I don't know. I guess the turnout will be somewhere around 2 million and I think the proposal's fate is dependent on how those 2 million people evaluate its effects on their lives,” Grebner said. “That is, will a majority of them decide that the resulting improvement in the roads will more than offset paying $200 more in sales tax? If more people vote, it still comes down to the sum of their personal views of self-interest.”

Darnoi said the issue won’t be how many, but who turns out on May 5.

“My focus would not be so much on the size of the electorate, as a case could be made for either turnout model providing for a favorable outcome,” Darnoi said. “If I were a proponent of the proposal, on election night I would be more focused on the composition of the electorate and looking for very specific characteristics rather than wondering if we are going to surpass some magical turnout percentage.”

But according to Kolt, low voter turnout should probably be welcomed as a good sign for those who want the proposal to pass.

“Small is better,” Kolt said. “The ‘no’ vote always has a 60/40 advantage in a ballot issue, so proponents need to find their supporters and get them to the polls. Maybe people against it will stay home.”

Ballenger, however, is thinking exactly the opposite.

“My answer is contrary to the conventional wisdom,” Ballenger said. “The old spring school millage issue elections depended on high turnout by ‘invested’ members of the educational community — teachers, school boards and administrators, and the PTA et al. — and low turnout by everybody else, who were asleep because they didn't even realize the election was happening.”

“That's how the ‘school types’ won, and why the law has now been changed to give the taxpaying public a better chance to ‘win,’” Ballenger continued. “In this year's scenario, however, the special interests must hope for a high turnout based on ‘roadway rage,’ fueled by millions in spending by special interests. If that doesn't happen, the election will be decided by the low-turnout voters who smell a rat and will turn out come-hell-or-high-water to defeat it. The ‘no’ voters always turn out if they know about the election, and they'll win unless the pro-Prop 1 supporters overwhelm them with money.”

Gov. Snyder is scheduled to give a special address on Michigan’s energy needs in March. It is already evident that what he is likely to tell Michigan residents in that address is that the state will face serious energy shortfalls in the near future if base-load energy generation isn’t increased significantly. Presuming this scenario is what actually plays out; how dominant an issue would you expect energy to be for the rest of 2015?

“The way things are aligning; two issues will dominate the first six months of 2015: the budget and the ballot proposal,” Darnoi said. “What happens after the Legislature returns from their summer break will largely be determined by the success or failure of the ballot proposal. If the Legislature has to return their attention to road and infrastructure needs and a possible rewrite of PA 51, it will be much harder for other issues to dominate the day. Conversely if the ballot proposal succeeds, it would open the door for other issues to ascend in importance. At this point in time, one could argue that energy issues won’t climb to center stage until after the presidential primaries of 2016.

Kolt agreed that, regardless of what the governor presents in March and the fact that the Legislature is reviewing Michigan’s current energy laws in 2015, energy issues will likely take a back seat to other things over the course of the year.

“Energy will be an issue, but maybe not a dominant issue,” Kolt said. “Other issues like roads, taxes, education, and safety will be at the forefront of debate in the next year; but energy will be on the public agenda eventually.”

According to Ballenger, historically speaking, energy policy hasn’t tended to rank very high with the voters as a political topic.

“Terrible to say, but energy has never been a top political issue in terms of voter behavior in Michigan, even though it certainly should be,” Ballenger said. “I expect that, yes, the politicians and news media will try to make it a top issue in 2015, but whether the public — absent some energy calamity — buys into it is unlikely. More important is whether energy will be an issue in 2016, an election year — now, that I've got to see.”

Grebner said he just can’t see energy becoming a top tier issue with the public.

“It may be a big issue among people holding or attending press conferences, but the public won't pay attention in any event,” Grebner said. “The issue is too dull and too distant. There are lots of serious people paying attention to it; so real people feel free to devote their attention to discussing Super Bowl ads and the price of gasoline.”

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See also:

Why Not Double the Prevailing Wage?

House GOP Action Plan Points the Way to Real Reform


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