No Mass Transit Grants for California, Biden Administration Rules

The latest Biden Administration events are the best in terms of political entertainment. As the president loses his approval rating, Democrats are consuming each other. There’s that video of Vice President Kamala Harris talking about “zee plan” with scientists in Paris—seemingly in a fake French accent.

Then on Thursday the House of Representatives censured loony GOP congressman Paul Gosar for circulating “a manipulated video on his social media accounts depicting himself killing Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacking…Biden.” This is quite the spectacle.

Yet arguably the week’s most-enjoyable D.C. story involves a bureaucratic interpretation of an arcane federal statute and its intersection with a 2013 California law. It’s a chuckle-inducing dispute once you delve into the complex backstory—and look at the unhinged reactions of California officials who are being hoisted on their own union-built petard.

The U.S. Department of Labor denied California $12 million in funding for transit, which includes grants from recently passed infrastructure bills. What is the reason for this? According to 1964 federal law, the labor department must certify that state agencies seeking mass transit grants “protect the interests of all affected employees.” Fresno Bee reported.

So, the Biden administration is claiming that California—the state that provides its public employees with unparalleled pay and pension benefits, and provides collective-bargaining rights unheard of anywhere else—is being mean to its “affected” public employees because the state passed a 2013 law, authored by Democrats, that infinitesimally reined in pension benefits.

As SFist summarized, “Biden is withholding giant amounts of federal money from California public transit because the state’s public-employee pension system is apparently not paying people enough.” Labor-allied California politicians—facing a reduction in funds for beloved transit programs—are so angry they’re almost sounding sensible. You can see why I laugh.

Governor. Gavin Newsom penned an artfully written letter on Nov. 10 to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh blasting the funding cut off. In it, he laments that the department’s grant-denial decision “is a complete reversal of (the agency’s) final determination in 2019 that California’s statewide pension reform legislation…’does not present a bar to certification.'”

Labor-friendly Governor is angry at the Biden administration’s labor-friendly position. Adding to my delight, Newsom favorably cites the previous administration, which, as noted, determined that the pension law does not harm state workers. Newsom does indeed cite a Trump appointee as he seeks to replace his Biden administration replacement.

This is just the beginning. Newsom, a pension reform critic, makes an excellent argument in defense of the 2013 law on pension reform, also known as Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act. “After many years of litigation, California was found to be the winner three times by the federal court. The department did not appeal. The department’s own lawyers noted that the federal court’s decisions were ‘thoroughly reasoned’ … That should conclude the matter.”

Recall Gov. Jerry Brown was the leader of PEPRA. PEPRA was initiated by Jerry Brown. The state was in serious financial trouble and local budgets were being decimated by rising pension costs. The state reduced some of its most generous pension formulas to new employees and stopped pension-spiking schemes like “air time,” that allowed public employees the ability to purchase future retirement credits at pennies per dollar.

The law in no way impaired collective-bargaining rights. PEPRA’s main purpose was actually political. It helped Brown convince the public that he was serious about reforming the budget process—and PEPRA’s passage softened up voters enough to pass the Proposition 30 tax hike.

Any perusal of Transparent California will show the eye-popping compensation packages that California public employees still receive. No other governor or Legislature hands out such lush benefits to public employees—and yet the Biden administration is punishing California for a Democratic-sponsored law that imposed only the slightest restraint.

In an act of hubris, some California public-employee unions sued over PEPRA—and claimed the rollback of pension-spiking gimmicks violated the California Rule. A series of court rulings has concluded that the government cannot lower pensions if it provides something equal.

Admirably, Brown defended PEPRA in court—and made a broader argument for rolling back that blasted California Rule, which prevents cities from limiting overly generous pension formulas that are obliterating their budgets.

Brown pointed to a lower-court ruling that said that public employees have the right to a reasonable pension—”not an immutable entitlement to the most optional formula of calculating the pension.” The California Supreme Court upheld the pension-reform law, but punted on the California Rule. This should be the end, however the federal government continues to be adamant about any attempt at reforming pensions.

I’m not bemoaning the potential loss of transit funds given they tilt heavily toward climate-change folderol. However, it is quite funny to see California Democrats being trampled by union friends.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.