SCVNews.com | Court Hands California Another Win in Dispute Over Federal Transit Money
By Hillel Aron
(CN) – A federal judge handed California another victory Wednesday in the state’s long-running dispute with the U.S. Department of Labor over federal transit money.
In 2021, President Joe Biden — famously a longtime train lover — signed into law a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that included what he called a “historic” investment in public transit, mostly through grants given to local transit agencies. What followed received less attention: a DECISION by the Labor Department to freeze $12 billion — about $2.5 billion from an emergency Covid relief package, the rest from the infrastructure bill — in federal money earmarked for California transit agencies.
“Withholding billions of dollars in essential funds under a nine-year-old state law while California struggles with the Covid-19 pandemic does a great harm and injustice to the people of California,” Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote in a scathing paper US Secretary of Labor.
Why block federal money for a very democratic, very car-dependent state struggling to reduce its carbon footprint? It was all part of an ongoing feud between unions and California that began in 2012, when then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed a comprehensive, bipartisan public employee pension reform bill. The law, which applied to state and local government employees, raised the retirement age, limited benefits and forced workers to contribute more to their retirement plans.
Transit unions argued the controversial reform ran afoul of the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1970, which says transit agencies applying for federal money must prove to the Labor Department that they have “fair and equitable” labor agreements. ” with their employees.
Shortly after California passed its pension reform law, a pair of local agencies applied for federal funding. The United Transit Union (ATU), which represents transit workers, opposed the applications. The Labor Department agreed and moved to block the grants, arguing that the new pension reform law prohibited employees from bargaining “over all pension rights.”
The two transit agencies sued in federal court and won, though the case dragged on for nearly six years, with the department denying applications using slightly different rationales and the transit agencies suing, until a 2018 ruling permanently enjoined the Labor Department from using the pension . reform as justification for blocking transit funding.
But the ruling was narrowly tailored and applied only to the two transit agencies that sued — although in the months after the ruling, the Labor Department approved numerous public transit grants over ATU’s objections.
In 2019, the Department of Labor under President Donald Trump decided not to oppose any funding requests. But two years later, the department, now under Biden, reversed course again.
As US District Judge Kimberly Mueller, an appointee of Barack Obama, wrote in it 67 page decisionThe Department of Labor “expressly embraced the reasoning behind its 2013 and 2015 decisions, the same reasoning this court had twice rejected.”
The department, she wrote, “did not have the authority to issue the broad and likely decision it made in 2021.” She called the department’s reasoning “unconvincing and arbitrary.”
“Her positions have suddenly changed, for the second time, and without regard to the previous orders of this court,” she wrote. “He has dismissed relevant direct evidence, overlooked important nuances, and made assumptions that have no support in the data.”
Her decision made permanent a temporary order she had put in place in 2021.
“The court rightly recognized the great harm to California from the U.S. Department of Labor’s deeply flawed determination,” a Newsom spokesman said. “The court’s decision ensures that billions of dollars in federal transit and infrastructure funds will continue to flow to California, just as Congress intended.”
Neither representatives from the ATU nor the Labor Department office responded to requests for comment by press time.