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  • Obama FY 2015 Budget: Aviation Funding Recommendation Not Great, But a Step in the Right Direction

    March 4, 2014 3:23 PM

    President Obama released his Fy 2015 budget today. Like his past budgets, as I noted in a previous post discussing the highway and transit budget, continuing congressional gridlock means this package will almost certainly go nowhere. I'll leave more sophisticated and comprehensive commentary to the budget analysts, but I will highlight one additional transportation provision: airport funding. Exactly like the FY 2014 budget from the White House, the FY 2015 budget calls for cutting Airport Improvement Program funding to $2.9 billion and increasing the cap on the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) from $4.50 to $8.


    AIP currently provides major airport infrastructure grants. These funds come from a variety of taxes and segment fees. However, while user-based to an extent, AIP funding is complex and less transparent, features that are generally undesirable in user fee frameworks -- in addition to relying on some non-user revenue (see page 20 of the AIP Handbook for a breakdown of revenue sources). AIP funds are also not segregated by facility, leading to wasteful grants to low-value airports.

  • "The bill doesn't come due until well after the legislators who wrote the check have left office"

    March 4, 2014 1:24 PM

    Thus describes an Illinois state Senator the challenge states face in reforming their public employee pension systems. Given that reality, it's astounding reform would ever succeed. But succeed it has, in states with very large pension shortfalls that threaten to blow up their budgets.


    Staring into the financial abyss, it seems, can help politicians overcome their strong temptation to offer generous benefits to their supporters -- government employee unions in the case of pensions -- and passing off the bill to future generations. Yet, government unions will defend their benefits even in states in extreme financial distress, as the recent Rhode Island pension settlement shows.


    On February 14, Rhode Island officials reached an agreement to end six legal challenges to the state's 2011 pension reform, the most far-reaching in the nation to date. The agreement scales back some of the savings in the 2011 reform bill, but  preserves most of them. Governor Lincoln Chafee and State Treasurer Gina Raimondo invested considerable effort and political capital in crafting and enacting the 2011 pension reform. So why did they agree to scale back any of it?


    Because they had to. The state was forced into negotiating by a judge, ruling on a union legal challenge to the pension reform legislation. As Drew University political science professor Patrick McGuinn describes the decision in a new Brookings Institution study, "Pension Politics: Public Employee Retirement System Reform in Four States" (which points to Rhode Island's reform as a model):


    In December 2012, a Superior Court judge ordered the unions and the governor/treasurer’s office into mediation to resolve the dispute—an extremely unusual (and perhaps even unconstitutional) move.


    In effect, the judge ordered the Chafee administration to negotiate with the unions to amend a law that had already been passed by the legislature and signed by the governor.


    While legally dubious, the February 2014 agreement may be the least bad option in terms of achieving sound policy -- which in the case of Rhode Island means preventing a budget meltdown. If a judge is willing to order the state government to renegotiate a law already on the books, who knows what might come next in court?


  • Bad Highway Policy Is a Bipartisan Affair

    February 28, 2014 11:18 AM

    Two major pieces of surface transportation policy news dropped this week. President Obama is readying the release of his budget, which will contain over $300 billion in transportation funding. Across the aisle, Rep. David Camp, R-Mich., the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, released a sweeping proposal to overhaul the U.S. tax code, which includes a component that would direct $120 billion in tax savings into the Highway Trust Fund.


    The president's latest budget is far from surprising, as it differs very little from his previous surface transportation proposals. Of the combined highways and transit spending ($278 billion), he proposes to allocate 25 percent ($72 billion) to mass transit -- a mode that makes up about 5 percent of trips.


    Thankfully, neither proposal has any chance of being enacted, at least as standalone comprehensive packages. Unfortunately, most of Congress's "business" is recycling and repackaging previous proposals, which means some aspects might well find their ways rolled into future legislation. With the current highway bill, MAP-21, expiring at the end of September 2014, Congress will begin the reauthorization process in the coming months. It is likely that some of these bad ideas will pop up again.


    First, the president's budget. He wants a $302 billion, four-year transportation bill. Half of that would supposedly come from tax reform, amounting to a massive bailout of the Highway Trust Fund. This is par for the course for President Obama, who has long advocated eliminating the Highway Trust Fund in favor of a slush fund that would enable additional gimmicky projects such as high-speed rail and urban streetcars.


  • Minimum Wage Increase to Wipe Out 500,000 Jobs

    February 19, 2014 5:51 PM

    "Boosting the federal minimum wage as President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are proposing" would "cut employment by roughly 500,000 jobs, Congress' nonpartisan budget analyst said Tuesday"; the Congressional Budget Office predicts that a minimum wage increase will result in "fewer jobs, especially for low-income workers; higher costs for business owners and higher prices for consumers. The study was unveiled as the Senate prepares for a March debate on a plan by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, ramping up the minimum in three steps to $10.10 by 2016." (Source: Associated Press).


    Raising the minimum wage also drives up unemployment among young people and unskilled workers. This CBO report comes on the heels of an earlier CBO report that predicts a fall in employment of about 2 percent over the next decade due to work disincentives contained in the 2010 healthcare law. Obamacare has caused layoffs in the medical device industry, and will wipe out many jobs. It is also replacing full-time jobs with meager part-time jobs in community colleges, restaurants, and other sectors.


  • Growing Support for Road User Charges Will Be Highlighted at March Conference

    February 18, 2014 11:55 AM

    I've written about the importance of charging road users for their road use for some time. Moving toward a truly user-pays system will require significant reform. For U.S. highways, federal and state fuel taxes provide the bulk of the funding. While the idea behind levying an excise tax on gasoline to fund roads was rooted in user-pays, political developments and new technology necessitate the move away from user taxes and toward more direct, and distance-based, user fees.


    Recently, road usage charges became an issue in the Virginia gubernatorial race, with some Republican activists trying and failing to paint the Libertarian candidate as a big-government tool for broadly suggesting that the state investigate the viability of replacing fuel and sales tax road funding with a user charge. Oregon has become the first state in the nation to introduce a user charge pilot program and many others are investigating similar programs. High-tech user charges such as all-electronic tolling and GPS-based charging systems are increasingly being seen as the next logical move for road revenue collection.

  • Ambush Elections Diminish the Understanding They Seek

    February 12, 2014 12:46 PM

    Workers would have less time to study for their huge, life-changing test of whether to unionize, under a new, proposed Obama administration rule that nonsensically claims it would increase understanding of and participation in the unionization process.


    Currently, unionization elections occur an average of 38 days after they are called. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has now proposed to have elections in as few as 10 days. Thus, under the proposal, workers could have only about a quarter of the time to study the unionization material.


    Would a student feel more prepared for pop quizzes or for well-planned tests? Would cutting study time to one-fourth of the previous average improve understanding? Would cutting students’ inquiry and prep time by seventy-five percent increase or diminish participation?


    The labor board’s proposal follows the logic of Nancy Pelosi: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” As we have seen with the ObamaCare law, perhaps this is not the best way to create policy.


    The NLRB proposal is a purely partisan one, passed on a 3-to-2, party-line vote. Yet, as my colleague Trey Kovacs noted, NLRB Chair Mark Pearce glosses over this pure partisanship, emphasizing that the board is “unanimous” in support for “important,” “effective,” and “constructive” procedures.


  • CEI Podcast for February 12, 2014: Are Cell Phones Coming to an Airplane Near You?

    February 12, 2014 11:26 AM

    CEI Fellow Marc Scribner opposes a bill that would ban in-flight cell phone usage on airplanes. He believes that decision should be left to airlines, who have the technology to disable phones' voice communications allowing data usage for texting, emailing, and web browsing.


  • House Committee to Markup Bill Banning In-Flight Cell Phone Calls

    February 10, 2014 6:41 PM

    Tomorrow morning (Tuesday, February 11), the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will markup the Prohibiting In-Flight Voice Communications on Mobile Wireless Devices Act (H.R. 3676). The bill would bar travelers from making cell phone calls on commercial flights—a response to the Federal Communications Commission’s recent proposal to relax its longstanding ban on in-flight cell phone use.


    H.R. 3676 purports to solve a problem that doesn’t exist by depriving consumers of travel choices, as I explained recently in an op-ed in USA Today. To be sure, I sympathize with travelers who fear being stuck next to a chattering bore for a long flight. However, the FCC’s deregulatory steps wouldn’t require any airline to offer voice calls in-flight; rather, the new rules would merely permit airlines to experiment with in-flight calling if they so choose.


    The bill’s sponsors concede that some in-flight phone calls are acceptable, exempting Airfone-style in-seat phone calls from the ban. If voice calls on commercial flights are so bad, why continue to allow some passengers to make them on some planes?


    Supporters of the bill have fretted about the prospect of passengers loudly yakking away on long in-flight cell phone calls. Yet the technology that enables in-flight cell phone calls usually charges roaming rates for voice calls, discouraging passengers from spending hours on the phone.


  • More Equality in the U.S. Than in Europe: When the Minimum Wage Buys More in the U.S.

    February 10, 2014 11:04 AM

    France and England may have higher minimum wages than most of the U.S. does, but things cost so much there that minimum-wage workers can afford less stuff than a U.S. minimum wage worker can (due partly to consumption taxes like the VAT that finance the European welfare state). One example is provided at the liberal-leaning blog The Daily Dish: beer. A minimum wage worker can buy a beer with 0.4 hours of labor in the U.S., compared to 0.5 hours in the United Kingdom, and 0.6 hours in France. It's a graph of "How many hours of minimum wage work it takes to buy a beer" in countries across the world. The graph actually understates the advantage enjoyed by the American minimum wage worker, since it uses the U.S. federal minimum wage, which is lower than the state minimum wage in many states.


    The things working-class people buy are cheaper in the U.S. than in Europe. That is especially true for electricity, heating, and clothing, which are much more expensive in Europe. To a lesser extent, it is also true for things like fast food. When I visit my French relatives, I pay a lot more for a hamburger than I do in the U.S., although the gap is less now that McDonald's has curtailed its (U.S.) dollar value menu, a discount option that never existed in France. Until late 2013, an American could buy a double cheeseburger with as much meat as a Big Mac for $1.29, or even as little as a dollar, in U.S. McDonald's franchises. No such deep-discount option existed in France, and Big Macs are more expensive in France and most of Europe than in the U.S. In January 2012, a Big Mac cost $9.63 in Norway, $8.14 in Finland, $7.29 in Sweden, and $6.81 in Switzerland, much more than in the U.S.


  • USDOT Calls for Connected Vehicle Mandate; Security and Privacy Concerns Remain

    February 3, 2014 2:03 PM

    The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced today it would chart a regulatory path that would require all new automobiles to be equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications systems sometime in the next several years. This follows a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation that connected vehicle technology be mandated on all new vehicles.


    V2V and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) safety systems could provide large safety benefits in the future. Unfortunately, DOT has jumped the gun, requiring systems while large challenges remain, particularly issues related to data privacy and security.


    A November 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) provides a good description of what DOT is attempting to do:

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