Florida sues Biden administration for threats to withhold transit funds

Florida sued the Biden administration Wednesday over a dispute that threatens to hold up hundreds of millions of federal transportation infrastructure funds after the state passed a law that the government says violates collective bargaining rights.

The law, Senate Bill 256, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in May, creates new restrictions and requirements for public-employee unions, including halting the practice of deducting dues directly from paychecks. The bill exempts unions that represent law-enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters.

DeSantis, who is running for president, said on X, formerly known as Twitter, that by signing the bill into law, “Florida teachers will be able to choose how their hard-earned money is spent. School unions will no longer be able to hold teachers’ paychecks hostage with veiled threats while hiding where the money goes.”

A collective bargaining bill signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in May has endangered up to $800 million of federal transit funds and prompted the state to sue the Biden administration.

Bloomberg News

The lawsuit names the U.S. Department of Transportation and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, as well as several other top transportation and labor officials.

At stake is nearly $800 million of Federal Transit Administration funds that are expected to flow to Florida transit systems over the next few years, according to the state.

The law requires employees seeking to join a union to sign a “membership authorization form” acknowledging that Florida is a right-to-work state, and halts automatic payroll deductions of union dues, instead requiring the employee to pay dues directly to the union. It also requires public unions seeking certification from the state to demonstrate that “at least 60% of employees eligible for participation in the union have elected to participate by paying their dues.”

A few days before the law took effect in July, the Department of Labor began notifying Florida transit entities that the new law “jeopardizes their continued eligibility to receive Federal Transit Administration funding,” according to Florida’s complaint, because it doesn’t comply with federal labor agreements.

Florida transit systems faces the loss of $767 million in FTA grant funding, according to an Aug. 28 letter from the Florida Public Transportation Association, which represents 45 transit systems in the state, to the state’s Public Employee Relations Commission, the state body that resolves disputes between employees, employers and unions. The loss “would be devastating to the public transportation industry in our state,” the association said, asking PERC to grant waivers from the law for the duration of federal projects.

PERC granted temporary waivers to the systems. But the DOL determined that the waivers, which expired when current labor contracts expired, were insufficient. Noting that “time was of the essence” because grant applications were due by Sept. 27, PERC then issued so-called conditional waivers that expired “upon any final decision of the DOL or a court of competent jurisdiction declaring that” the law is legal, according to the complaint.

“The state of Florida now files this suit to prevent the irreparable harm caused by the Department of Labor’s actions,” the complaint said.

The FTA’s “ultimatum is based on an unconstitutional funding condition,” the state argued,” and the lawsuit is needed to “protect its access to critical funding and its sovereign prerogative to regulate in the realm of collective bargaining.”

Several unions and the Florida Education Association have challenged the law’s constitutionality in state and federal court.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody said in a statement that the state has “passed laws to protect workers from being strong-armed by unions … We’re pushing back against this overreach to protect our state’s autonomy and Florida workers.”

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