Sens. Feinstein, Padilla urge Labor Department to reinstate California eligibility for federal transit grants

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U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Alex Padilla (D-CA) urged the U.S. Department of Labor to immediately restore California’s access to federal transit grants in a letter sent Wednesday.

According to the letter, California could become ineligible for billions in Labor Department grants because of a reversal in a department policy. The department determined that the state is not in compliance with Section 13c of the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, despite being at odds with multiple state and federal court decisions and Labor Department precedent, the Senators said.

“We have serious concerns that the Department of Labor’s new determination will put billions of dollars in transit grants, as well as continued emission reductions, for California at risk,” the senators wrote in a letter to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. “Further, the Department’s determination was made just after Congress passed major COVID economic relief and infrastructure legislation to fund billions of dollars in new transit grants. We have grave concerns with such a determination that puts California transit agencies and millions of Californians at such a disadvantage.”

At issue is the state’s change in its pension benefits. In 2013, the state changed its pension law to restrict benefits to any new employees hired after Jan. 1, 2013, in its Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act (PERPA). The Labor Department determined that the law “eroded public transit employees’ rights to negotiate over their pay and benefits.” A 1964 federal law says that before state and local agencies can receive federal grants for mass transit, the department must certify that it is protecting the interests of its employees.

On Oct. 28, the Labor Department determined that the 2013 law ran afoul of those protections.

The Senators wrote in support of a letter sent earlier by California Gov. Gavin Newsom asking the Labor Department to reverse its decision.

“The Department’s approach also disregards its past assurances to California that it would abide by the federal judiciary’s resolution of the PEPRA/Section 13(c) issue and work cooperatively to avoid disrupting California’s access to federal funding during litigation,” Newsom’s letter said. “After multiple years of litigation, the reviewing federal court found in California’s favor three times, and the Department did not pursue appeals. The Department’s own lawyers noted that the federal court’s decisions were ‘thoroughly reasoned,’ and in 2019 OLMS formally concluded that PEPRA ‘does not impermissibly impair collective bargaining rights.’”

The Senators said the department’s determination puts the state’s work on public transportation, as well as the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.