U.S. House votes to avert calamitous rail strike, but Senate prospects murky

by Jacob Fischler, Kansas News Service

The U.S. House moved Wednesday to avoid an economically disastrous nationwide rail strike, voting to codify an agreement that members of some unions had already rejected and separately add paid sick leave that workers had demanded.

The two-track approach allows Democrats to avert a strike that could cost the U.S. economy up to $2 billion per day, while also acknowledging they sympathized with union members’ request for more sick leave.

Prospects in the Senate, where progressive stalwart Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and other members of the Democratic caucus have asked that sick leave be added to any deal imposed by Congress, remained murky Wednesday.

As the House votes closed Wednesday, Sanders was on the Senate floor urging support for the sick leave proposal.

“I hope very much that in a bipartisan way we can do the right thing and tell the rail workers and tell every worker in America that the United States Congress is prepared to stand with them and not just the people on top who are doing extraordinarily well,” he said.

Several Republicans have also signaled their support for adding sick leave, but it’s unclear if there are 10 Republicans needed to approve that measure.

The congressional action comes after President Joe Biden convened a panel of arbitrators to secure a deal between railroads and union leaders in September. That deal provided a 24% increase in total compensation to rail workers, but did not affect sick leave policies that unions said were unworkable.

Four of the 12 rail unions declined to endorse the deal. They are legally able to strike on Dec. 9, though rail service is likely to be affected if a work stoppage is not avoided by week’s end. Thousands of businesses would feel the impact in the weeks before the holidays.

Democrats say they must act

Biden, who fashioned himself “a proud pro-labor president,” said this week he would have preferred not to wade into the dispute, but that the economic consequences necessitated federal action.

“I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement,” he said. “But in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families — I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”

House Democrats took similar positions this week, appearing reluctant to approve a deal that unions had rejected, but doing so anyway to avoid economic catastrophe.

“Congress has the authority to act,” U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat who is a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Wednesday. “Not because we want to, but we have to avoid a work stoppage. And we have to recognize that the tentative agreement falls well short of what is necessary for paid leave for rail workers.”

Republicans took the opportunity to blast Biden for failing to avert the rail shutdown with the September negotiation. Congress shouldn’t have to be involved, they said.

“Congress should be a last resort,” U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican of Iowa, said. “Biden and this administration, they need to be more engaged in this. This is not our business. We shouldn’t be negotiating union contracts.”

Bipartisan vote

Wednesday’s 290-137 House vote to approve the tentative agreement — without added sick time — was bipartisan, with only eight Democrats voting against and more than one-third of Republicans voting to approve it.

The vote to add the sick leave provision passed, 221-207, mostly along party lines, with three Republicans — Don Bacon of Nebraska, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and John Katko of New York — joining all House Democrats in voting to approve.

Avoiding a rail shutdown should be the priority, House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking Republican Sam Graves of Missouri said, not mollifying union members.

Congress stepping in to override private negotiations and the recommendation of a neutral mediation board undermined future collective bargaining, he said.

“It’s nothing more than a political stunt,” Graves said. “It’s pandering. … Today my colleagues are acting very recklessly and are setting a terrible precedent.”

U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the panel’s rail subcommittee, responded that the proposal would only right the wrong of rail workers’ insufficient paid sick leave.

“This is not pandering,” Payne responded. “This is seeing a situation and addressing it.”

Uncertainty in Senate

After House passage, the measure will move to the Senate, where it’s unclear if the tentative agreement, the resolution with added sick time or neither would pass.

The chamber will likely vote either Thursday or Friday.

Colorado’s John Hickenlooper was among the Senate Democrats joining Sanders in calling for seven days of added sick leave — the same amount required of federal contractors —to be included in a congressional resolution.

“Railroad companies are holding the American economy hostage over 56 annual hours of sick leave,” Hickenlooper said in a statement. “Just seven days. We can keep our economy humming, our supply chains open, AND treat workers with dignity.

“Any bill should include the SEVEN days of sick leave rail workers have asked for.”

Several Republicans gave varying levels of support to the prospect of adding sick leave to a bill. Ten would be needed to pass such a bill if every Democrat voted in favor. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III, considered the caucus’ most conservative member, has not said how he would vote on the sick leave proposal.

Ernst said her party was “debating this heavily.”

But since Congress is involved, she said she would base her vote on the views of union members — not necessarily their leaders. Union leaders negotiated the September agreement that lacked all the sick time members sought.

Florida Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott said they wouldn’t vote for the tentative agreement that was opposed by workers.

Leaders of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, a major transportation union, on Wednesday morning prior to the vote endorsed the bill to add seven days of sick leave.

“Right now, every Member of Congress has an opportunity to be a champion of the working class,” TTD President Greg Regan and Secretary-Treasurer Shari Semelsberger said in a statement.

“We implore these elected leaders to stand with essential workers who are the backbone of our nation’s supply chain. We urge the House and the Senate to vote in favor of guaranteeing seven days of paid sick leave to rail workers.”

In a statement, Biden thanked the House for passing its bill and called on the Senate to follow suit “immediately.”

“Without action this week, disruptions to our auto supply chains, our ability to move food to tables, and our ability to remove hazardous waste from gasoline refineries will begin,” he said. “The Senate must move quickly and send a bill to my desk for my signature immediately.”

$2 billion per day

The Association of American Railroads, the trade group for the leading rail service providers, estimated that a nationwide shutdown would mean daily losses of $2 billion for the U.S. economy.

Tens of thousands of businesses depend on rail to deliver goods, with 75,000 carloads beginning shipping every day, according to a September AAR report.

Other industries would not be in a position to replace rail transport, the report said. It would take 467,000 additional long-haul trucks to replace rail carriers.

There was unanimity among elected officials in Washington that a shutdown would be calamitous.

In a statement Monday, Biden called on Congress to approve the tentative agreement “to avert a potentially crippling national rail shutdown.”

“A shutdown is unacceptable,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at Monday’s press briefing. “It will hurt families, communities across the country. It will hurt jobs. It will hurt farms. It will hurt businesses.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also called Monday evening for Congress to adopt the agreement to prevent “a rail shutdown that would have devastating impacts on our economy.”

Democrats and Republicans in the House noted that a shutdown would worsen inflation, driving up energy and other costs.

And because of the complexity of the supply chain, any stoppage in service could take much longer to unfurl, Ed Mortimer a former vice president for transportation and infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview.

“Any type of disruption — it could only last a week, but it could take a month or two to get back to whatever normal was,” he said.

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.

Kansas Reflector stories, www.kansasreflector.com, may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
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STAR bonds, food sales tax top UG’s proposed legislative agenda priorities

by Mary Rupert

STAR bonds and the food sales tax topped the proposed Unified Government legislative agenda priorities.

In a discussion Nov. 17, UG commissioners and state legislators told of a need to keep STAR bonds as they are, and they also believed that Wyandotte County residents would benefit greatly from an expedited reduction on the food sales tax.

The UG Commission will take up the priority list again at a future meeting to determine its top legislative issues.

A possible challenge to the STAR bond districts, which relies partly on sales tax not getting cut away, would leave Wyandotte County’s STAR bond district more vulnerable, according to Alan Howze, assistant county administrator.

UG Commissioner Tom Burroughs, who served in the House from 1997 through 2022 until deciding not to run again this year, said the impact of STAR bonds for Wyandotte County has made it extremely important to keep the momentum going. There will be a request to change it, and he said every change could have an effect on what Wyandotte County has accomplished so far and will accomplish moving forward.

A lot of people want STAR bonds to meet the project, but don’t want the project to meet the criteria of STAR bonds, Burroughs said.

A lot of people want STAR bonds to meet the project, but don’t want the project to meet the criteria of STAR bonds.

UG Commissioner Tom Burroughs

“That is something that has been very important to this community,” Burroughs said.

Sen. Pat Pettey, D – 6th District, said she was glad expedited elimination of the food sales tax was No. 1 on the UG’s agenda, and the governor is backing it.

“I’m sure every legislator running for office has heard at the door that food costs are going up. It should be at the top of the Wyandotte County agenda. Our citizens would all benefit from that,” she said.

Expanded development

Next on the list was expanded development financing tools.

Rep. Pam Curtis, D-32nd Dist., said last year she worked through legislation that expanded financing tools. The development tools often applied to rural communities.

The city of Topeka made its entire city eligible for housing assistance, something that should be considered for Kansas City, Kansas, she added.

Rural and economically challenged urban areas share a lot of the same challenges, Rep. Curtis said. Their approaches might be different, but there would be no reason to separate them geographically in proposed legislation, she said.

As jobs are created in the state, money is set aside for workforce housing for those earning $60,000 to $80,000, she said. Rural communities have a pot of money to help them while urban areas may want to have the same sort of economic development tools.

Childcare expansion

Childcare and pre-kindergarten expansion also is on the list this year. The Wyandotte Economic Development Council has cited a need for it because of the barrier it creates for job creation, Howze said.

Sen. Pettey said Wyandotte County is in a desperate situation for child care affordability. She is working on a committee with Commissioner Andrew Davis planning strategies around addressing the problem.

The problem isn’t just in Wyandotte County, where it’s severe, but it’s also statewide, she said.

Rep. Curtis said a business child care tax credit was added last year for employers and employees, but the child care work force also has to contract with them.

Medicaid expansion and foster care

Medicaid expansion, a topic that seems to come up every year, is fourth on the UG’s list. Sen. Pettey said it’s needed and the governor will support it again this year.

Fifth on the list was foster care support for those who are 18 or older and aging out of foster care. Proposed legislation would provide stronger supports for this age group as they move into adulthood.

Other items on the legislative list were drug paraphernalia definitions, and substance abuse treatments, especially important with Wyandotte County losing a major facility, the Mirror Inc. Also listed as priorities were clean slate automated expungement, and mental health concerns.

Mental health and the homeless

Commissioner Melissa Bynum said mental health concerns are important with many homeless residents dealing with mental illness or substance abuse.

She said they are seeing an increase in the homeless numbers, and it was already a pretty serious issue before the pandemic.

Other priorities

Funding the public defender’s office, reducing violence, extreme risk protection orders and alternative revenue sources also were listed as priorities.

The protection order would allow law enforcement to take a firearm from a person deemed a risk to self and others, then after due process, to give the firearms back.

Earnings tax

An earnings tax was discussed under alternative revenue sources.

Rep. Curtis said the earnings tax idea had not been successful in the past. What they should be doing is funding revenue sources that are there now, she said.

Commissioner Bynum said the state removed the machinery and equipment tax years ago, lowering revenues for cities.

Sen. Pettey said she was on the UG Commission when the commission supported an e-tax, but she doesn’t think it has any legs in the Legislature. Everyone campaigning has heard people complain mostly about taxes, she said.

The UG Commission once supported an e-tax, but it doesn’t have any legs in the Legislature. Everyone campaigning has heard people complain mostly about taxes.

Sen. Pat Pettey

Commissioner Chuck Stites agreed that people are talking about how high their tax bills are now and how they can reduce them.

Money that has been taken away from local governments over the past 10 years was supposed to have been reimbursed, starting that payment back, Burroughs said. But anything to do with an earnings tax would be met with scrutiny, according to Burroughs.

An e-tax involves people driving into the community to work in jobs here, then driving out of the community when they get off work without paying taxes – the earnings tax would try to tax people who don’t live here but who hold some of the highest paying jobs here.

“Members to the south now have the largest voting bloc in the caucus,” Burroughs said. “Even if our community wanted it, it would be a difficult lift.”

Sports wagering

Another of the priorities on the proposed list would try to get the UG some funding from the sports wagering bill that passed. Unlike the casino gaming revenue funds, the local governments were not cut in on the sports wagering proceeds. Instead, under the law a portion of the money went to creating a professional sports fund that would attempt to lure pro teams to Kansas.

Commissioner Mike Kane advocated for the prevailing wage, and said it must be moved up on the list.

Issues with medical cannabis

Legalization of medical cannabis was down toward the end of the priority list. Sen. David Haley, D-4th Dist., said he was concerned with the issues.

With surrounding states legalizing marijuana, it can put Kansas law enforcement officers in a difficult position to enforce a law no one else has on its books, he said.

Mayor Tyrone Garner said the legal team and district attorney have discussed the situation, and were looking at depenalization similar to a Wichita proposal


Residents have to be careful not to be trapped.

Mayor Tyrone Garner

Residents have to be careful not to be trapped by a bridge to a felony, he said. If Wyandotte County is easy on a first offense, other counties may not be as lenient with the penalties. A third penalty, from another county, could put a felony on a person’s record. A felony for possession where it’s legal in two neighboring states needs a second look, he said.

Commissioner Andrew Davis supported legalization at the state level. It won’t be a question of too much longer, as half the country is there now, he believes.

Property tax relief

Also discussed were the golden years property tax relief for senior citizens. Rep. Curtis said there was a property freeze circuitbreaker bill passed with a maximum refund of $2,500 on property taxes paid by those 65 or older, disabled veterans, for households earning less than $50,000. Not all senior citizens would qualify. Information about such a program will be going out to people in January to March 31, according to UG officials..

Funding education

Commissioner Christian Ramirez supported fully funding education and special education. Students need resources and full funding, he said.

Rep. Valdenia Winn, D-34th Dist. said that unfortunately there will be attempts to change the definitions or add definitions in state statutes that currently exist.

“You don’t like something, you do a little voodoo math,” she said.

You don’t like something, you do a little voodoo math.

Rep. Valdenia Winn

She invited people to participate in upcoming hearings. There are real examples of costs not being covered, she said. The gifted are considered special education and will be affected as well as other special education students.

This year, there are more new faces in the Wyandotte County legislative delegation with the retirement of some long-time representatives.

Paul Davis, the UG’s lobbyist, said the next session of the Legislature in Topeka will be similar to last year. While there’s always change with every election, Topeka will look pretty similar with the same governor, a couple different statewide officeholders, and the composition of the Legislature will be pretty much the same as it has been before. Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration will set the agenda, present the budget and set the baseline.

The governor most likely will propose moving up the elimination of the sales tax on food on her agenda, but there are likely some priorities they have yet to hear about, he added.

Other issues were discussed at the legislative priorities meeting, and can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUDZ7rHeYjM.