Biden administration contests Florida’s challenge on transit funding linked to union law restrictions

by | Dec 18, 2023



  • The Biden administration’s legal team is challenging Florida’s lawsuit over a dispute involving transit funding and state law restricting public employee unions.
  • The conflict arises from SB 256, which limits union dues deductions from government workers’ paychecks and imposes additional constraints on public employee unions. The measure clashes with federal requirements for protecting collective bargaining rights in transit workers, a precondition for receiving federal transit funds.
  • Florida, under Attorney General Ashley Moody, insists the federal government’s stance infringes on state sovereignty and violates constitutional and legal norms, risking up to $800 million in transit funding.

The Biden administration wants a federal judge to reject a lawsuit filed by Florida in a dispute about transit funding and a new state law that placed additional restrictions on public employee unions.

Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Labor, and other defendants Friday filed court documents disputing Florida’s arguments that federal officials were improperly threatening to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars for local transit programs in the state.

The dispute stems from a law (SB 256) that the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved this spring that prevented union dues from being deducted from most government workers’ paychecks and placed other restrictions on public employee unions.

At the same time, federal law requires the secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor to certify that a “continuation of collective bargaining rights” for transit workers is protected before transit money is provided to local agencies.

Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office filed the lawsuit in October and sought a preliminary injunction, arguing that federal officials have unconstitutionally threatened to withhold transit money if the state carries out parts of the union law, such as the prohibition on payroll dues deductions.

“The Department of Labor has given Florida an ultimatum — abandon the reforms enacted through SB 256 or lose hundreds of millions in federal funding,” the lawsuit said. “Because that ultimatum is based on an unconstitutional funding condition and is otherwise contrary to law, Florida brings this suit to protect its access to critical funding and its sovereign prerogative to regulate in the realm of collective bargaining.”

But in the documents filed Friday, U.S. Department of Justice attorneys argued that the state’s motion for a preliminary injunction should be rejected and that a judge should dismiss the case or grant summary judgment to the defendants. The attorneys said two parts of the new law interfered with transit workers’ collective bargaining rights: the dues-deduction prohibition and a section of the law requiring unions to be decertified as bargaining agents if fewer than 60 percent of eligible employees are members.

The Justice Department attorneys wrote that those parts of the law “substantially clash with transit employees’ rights to be represented by a designated bargaining agent and to bargain collectively through that representative on critical mandatory subjects. Plaintiff’s (the state’s) say-so that this interference is no more than ‘de minimis,’ without elaboration or support, cannot disturb DOL’s (the Department of Labor’s) conclusion.”

Also, the Biden administration said the state has not shown it has legal standing, as the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission has granted waivers to transit agencies about complying with the new law while the legal battle plays out. The Public Employees Relations Commission is in charge of enforcing the union restrictions.

“No transit agency in Florida has lost federal funding, and the transit agencies not only willingly exercised a waiver provision in the state’s collective bargaining laws to seek relief from the collective bargaining restrictions at issue, but affirmatively proposed that course of action to DOL as an acceptable way to resolve the issue,” the Justice Department attorneys wrote.

But in its motion for a preliminary injunction, lawyers in Moody’s office wrote that “Florida is entitled to receive its funding without waiving the requirements of SB 256.”

“So far, Florida’s Public Employees Relations Commission has exercised its statutory authority to conditionally waive the relevant provisions of SB 256 and avoid a devastating loss of funding to the state,” the motion said. “But Florida suffers irreparable sovereign injury every day that its duly enacted laws are not in effect.”

The state alleges federal officials have violated what is known as the Spending Clause of the U.S. Constitution and a law known as the Administrative Procedure Act. The lawsuit said the “Department of Labor’s decision is arbitrary and capricious” and could jeopardize as much as $800 million in federal transit funding in the coming years.

A document filed Friday by Justice Department attorneys cited several transportation agencies and local governments with collective bargaining agreements and submitted new applications for transit funding this year. Examples include Miami-Dade County, Broward County, Palm Beach County, Escambia County, and the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority.

The lawsuit, filed in Fort Lauderdale, has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Rodney Smith.

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