Commuter Benefits: How a bill with bipartisan support turned into a partisan fight

Jul 20, 2011
By Rebecca

At CLCV, we often know early on what bills will be contentious in the legislature. We plan ahead and work on securing votes of legislators who are on the fence. But at other times, good bills seem to be sailing through. This was the case with SB 582, which would establish a commuter benefit pilot program. Unfortunately though, the key word here is "was".

The pilot program would allow metropolitan planning organizations (MPO) and local air districts to jointly adopt a regional commute benefit requirement. Employers in these regions would have the following options:

  • Give employees the option to pay for their transit, vanpooling or bicycling expenses with pre-tax dollars, as currently allowed by federal law;
  • Offer employees a transit or vanpool subsidy up to $75 per month;
  • Provide employees with a free shuttle or vanpool operated by or for the employer.

What's great about commuter benefits is that they benefit both employees and employers, especially if employers choose the first option. As someone who has participated in commuter benefit programs as an employee and administered a program for a non-profit I used to work for, I can attest that allowing employees to pay for transit expenses with pre-tax dollars saves money for employers and employees.

Sounds pretty non-controversial, right?

Well, it was at first. Republican Senator Bill Emmerson introduced the bill early this year and it quickly earned bi-partisan support. The Senate passed the bill in May with a 36-2 vote.

SB 582 continued to sail along in the Assembly. As late as June 20th, there was no registered opposition to the bill, which made sense to us since the bill doesn't cost the state or employers any funds and helps reduce traffic congestion, air pollution and greenhouse gasses related to transportation.

But at the last moment, as the bill was headed to the Assembly floor, the California Chamber of Commerce and California Taxpayers Association came out against the bill. Yes, the Chamber, which is supposed to support business interests, and the Taxpayers Association, which is supposed to support taxpayer interests, came out against a bill that would save businesses money and cost nothing to taxpayers!

Opposition by these groups entirely changed the dynamic in the Assembly. All of a sudden many legislators back off of supporting the bill. Senator Emmerson, while still supporting the bill, pulled out from being the bill's author, and Senator Leland Yee stepped in to sponsor the bill.

Our friends at TransForm started reaching out to swing assemblymembers to secure their support on the bill and we offered to help by generating calls into the swing districts. Here's what our Member Action Campaign Associate Bekah Barnett wrote about our part in this campaign:

Part of my role at CLCV is to manage the Membership Action Campaigns Program. This is when we determine which representatives are going to be the key swing votes on an issue, and then we call CLCV members in their districts and pass them through directly to leave a message for their representative. Recently, we were asked to help out with the passage of SB 582, with only one day to make calls before the vote. We were able to get 8 pass through calls to Joan Buchanan and 9 to Dr. Richard Pan. The next day, when the vote came up, they both voted in favor of the bill! That’s a 100% success rate! It feels great to be able to contribute to the passage of a bill that would so favorably impact people and the environment, especially when it’s a program that I have personally benefitted from and know would make a big difference for the state.

Because of our work and the work of several other environmental groups in the few days leading up to the vote, the Assembly passed the bill with a narrow margin of 47-28 votes. The vote was split entirely along party lines, despite the bipartisan support the bill had enjoyed in the Senate.

Clearly, the opposition of the Chamber and Taxpayers Association had scared many assemblymembers - particularly Republicans - from voting for this win-win bill. This influence was made even clearer when the bill returned to the Senate for a concurrence vote (since the bill had been slightly amended in the Assembly). The 36-2 vote in May turned into a 24-14 vote in July, and it split entirely along party lines, except for Senator Emmerson, who maintained his support for the bill.

The fate of SB 582 rests with Governor Jerry Brown, as the bill now sits on his desk awaiting a signature. If you want to see more commuter benefit programs - that save money for employers and employees and improve our air quality - implemented in California, call the Governor and urge him to sign SB 582: (916) 445-2841.



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