By JANET NGUYEN / For the Register
The federal Labor Department is withholding $114 million in grants designated for the Orange County Transportation Authority’s capital programs, operations and purchasing. The delay stems from questions that have been raised by the federal government regarding Gov. Jerry Brown’s pension-reform law, which they claim may violate collective bargaining rights of union workers.
This is not the first time the federal government has allowed union influence to stand in the way of attempts to reign in the huge pension obligations that government agencies have accrued.
Since 2010, my colleagues on the Orange County Board of Supervisors and I have worked tirelessly to make serious reforms to Orange County’s pension problem. We’ve made notable headway but the federal government continues to stand in the way of the significant changes necessary for chipping away at our growing unfunded liability.
With the support of our local unions, we created a “hybrid” plan that allows new employees to voluntarily elect coverage under a lower cost plan which was passed by the state Legislature. While this hybrid plan has saved taxpayers approximately $1,045,800 since its implementation, we sought to go even further by allowing current employees to opt down into this lower cost plan. By allowing current employees to opt down, the county can save an additional $8,389,000 million per year according to our budget projections that assume 50 percent of the county’s workforce opts down. Unfortunately, the federal government questioned the impact it would have on union workers despite the fact that our very own union supports it.
In the past three years, former Supervisor Bill Campbell and I have traveled to Washington, D.C., multiple times to lobby the federal government to issue an official guidance on the component of our hybrid plan that allows current employees to opt down. All efforts have thus far proven futile.
The questions surrounding Brown’s pension-reform law have resulted in $114 million in federal withholdings to transportation, a collateral damage that OCTA can’t afford to withstand.
Without these federal dollars, OCTA has already had to postpone the planned replacement of nearly 200 buses. If the freeze continues, OCTA will be forced to consider reductions in employee salaries and even layoffs, as well as cutting services to riders. Since 40 percent of OCTA’s bus ridership comes from the First Supervisorial District that I represent, a reduction in services has the greatest impact on my constituents.
The federal government needs to be careful when choosing to put its unions above all else, because they may end up hurting the very people they’re trying to protect in the first place.
Janet Nguyen is Orange County supervisor from the First District. She is also a member of the OCTA Board of Directors.