Feds delay move to withhold California mass transit funding

jortiz@sacbee.comAugust 17, 2013 

6W17PEREZ

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez

With billions of mass-transit dollars at stake, the U.S. Department of Labor said Friday that it will delay ruling on whether California's new pension law violates a 49-year-old federal statute that ties the funds to collective bargaining rights.

A spokesman for the Labor Department confirmed that federal officials are holding off on making any decisions for now while they continue talks with Gov. Jerry Brown's office to resolve the thorny issue.

Brown spokesman Jim Evans said in an email that the administration is "gratified" federal authorities are giving the state and dozens of regional transit authorities more time and that officials "will continue to work closely with the federal government in an effort to resolve this issue."

Earlier this month, U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez warned Brown that the department would begin withholding the funds because the state's new public pension law likely violates the collective bargaining rights of some 20,000 mass transit employees. California has more than 100 regional mass-transit grants to regional agencies in the pipeline with a total $1.6 billion in funding earmarked for this year alone.

Sacramento's regional transit district is waiting on $60 million in federal money, including $45 million for work on a light-rail extension to Elk Grove. It plans to apply for another $60 million to $70 million soon. All of the money could be denied if state and federal officials can't harmonize two apparently conflicting laws.

Federal law enacted in 1964 requires that the Labor Department certify that mass-transit grant recipients preserve their employees' collective representation. At the time, governments around the country were taking over failing privately held transit companies. Congress passed the law to protect the rights and benefits of unionized transit workers who became government employees. At the time, most state and local civil servants didn't belong to a union.

Mass-transit labor groups say that the California pension law, intended to roll back benefits and shift more cost to employees, imposed terms on their members instead of bargaining for them, a violation of federal law.

In a letter to Brown earlier this month, Perez signaled that he agrees with the unions and set Friday as a deadline for what could have been the first of many decisions to decertify one transit agency after another, which would block their federal grant funds. The law took effect Jan. 1.

Gov. Jerry Brown's administration has said the pension law merely sets a new framework for public pension bargaining but that it doesn't weaken collective bargaining itself.

Call The Bee's Jon Ortiz, (916) 321-1043. Follow him on Twitter @thestateworker and read his blog, The State Worker.

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