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August 13, 2013
Editorial: Obama official needs to free up transit money

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(Aug. 13 -- By the Editorial Board)

If transit workers win exemption from California's new pension reform laws, police will demand exemptions as well, then firefighters, then nurses and teachers and clerks at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The law itself will be eviscerated. Neither the state nor local governments can afford to let that happen.

That is why it is so important for Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature to stand firm against transit union and federal labor officials. The latter are threatening to withhold transit funds if the state applies its new pension reform laws to transit districts. It's equally important that the Legislature reject Assembly Bill 160. That measure - by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville - would exempt 20,000 transit workers statewide from sensible and historic pension reforms approved last year that, among other things, increase contribution rates for current workers, raise the retirement age and ban pension spiking for new workers.

Transit union officials point to an obscure regulation in labor law that requires the U.S. Department of Labor to review and sign off on any federal grant to a state or local transit district. Before signing off, the department routinely sends a notification to local union officials asking whether the grant violates collective bargaining protections embedded in federal law. In the past, unions routinely responded that they did not.

But since California approved its pension reform law, unions have refused to sign off on those notifications, and U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez has refused to let the funds be released.

The ability to hold up hundreds of millions of dollars in federal transit construction funding has given the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Teamsters and other transit unions enormous bargaining leverage over local governments, transit districts and the state. Sacramento's Regional Transit, which has been in a long-running contract dispute with its unions over pensions, has had its grant funding challenged. For months now, RT has been shuffling money among various funds to keep projects going, but the local district has almost $100 million at risk, and time is running out.

While BART unions have not yet challenged any federal grants in their contract dispute, it is a factor hanging over the negotiations. Bay Area transit workers, who earn the richest pay and benefit packages in the country and contribute nothing to their pension fund, are fighting at the bargaining table to keep it that way. The U.S. Department of Labor is helping them to do so.

If federal labor officials are unwilling to let states protect their finances by enacting pension reforms, it's time for Brown and members of Congress - including U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento - to ask President Barack Obama to intervene. California's pension reform law was hardly far-reaching. If the federal government won't let states adopt even modest reforms, it won't be long until there is a national backlash against collective bargaining on all levels of government.

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