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Legislative Update February 2009

Economic Stimulus Package Includes Increased Funding for Transit

The big news this month is H.R. 1, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2008, otherwise known as the $825 Billion Economic Stimulus Package. The bill that was passed in the House on January 28 without a single yes vote on the Republican side, includes an amendment introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) to increase public transit funding from $9 billion to $12 billion. Nadler is the Northeast’s senior member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Transportation experts, including House T & I Chairman Jim Oberstar, believe that the $9 billion previously included for transit in the bill was insufficient and had recommended $12 billion in order to maintain and improve transit systems nationwide.  The added $3 billion will create thousands more jobs, protect the environment through green transit projects, and improve public transportation across the country.  Of the $3 billion increase, $1.5 billion will go toward formula funding to transit agencies and $1.5 billion will be added to the New Starts program.

The Senate version of the bill, which is being hashed out this week, currently proposes $8.4 billion for public transit. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who agrees with President Obama that there will be more Republican support for the bill in the Senate than there was in the House, wants to boost transit funding to $14.9 billion by increasing the transit capital pot to $10.4 billion, and adding $2 billion for rail modifications and $2.5 billion for New Starts.

The capital funding would help agencies cover “out-of-control” capital costs, the rail modification fund would provide funds for aging systems and the New Starts pot would include dollars for projects such as MTA Long Island Railroad’s East Side Access, MTA New York City Transit’s Second Avenue Subway and New Jersey Transit’s Access to the Region’s Core, according to Schumer. The additional funding also would help New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority overcome record budget deficits, he said.

Labor Movement Making Strides

Union Membership on the Rise:  For the first time in 25 years, the number of American workers belonging to a union has risen significantly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 12.4 percent of employed workers in 2008 belonged to a union compared to 12.1 percent in 2007. Prior to this, union membership had been on a steady decline since the 1950s. The increase in the rate of union membership is believed to be a result of there being more union workers and, because of the recession, fewer workers overall. Jim Walker, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, stated: “Part of what I think is happening is that the economy is shrinking but union jobs are not being shed because they have union contracts.”

White House Doors Open to Unions: On January 30, at a gathering in the East Room of the White House, Vice President Biden stated: “Welcome back to the White House,” to a crowd of labor leaders and officials of nonprofit organizations. In an effort to make a clean break from the anti-labor sentiments of the Bush Administration, the White House doors were opened to these officials to meet with President Obama and Biden and witness the signing of the executive orders affecting federal contractors and the announcement of the formation of the Task Force on Middle Class Working Families. In a transcript of the signing ceremony proceedings, President Obama is quoted as stating: “We have to reverse many of the policies towards organized labor that we’ve seen these last eight years, policies with which I’ve sharply disagreed. I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem; to me it’s part of the solution.” After the meeting, President Obama spoke with each union boss individually.

Obama’s Choice to head Labor Department welcomed by unions: Congresswoman Hilda Solis (D-CA), the President’s choice for Labor Secretary, is the daughter of union members, has a reliable pro-labor voting record, and is a supporter of the Employee Free Choice Act. It comes as no surprise that Republican senators are doing their best to hold up the nomination. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is set to vote Solis’s nomination this week.

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