California trucking dispute adds to highway bill congestion

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., authored an amendment to a big transportation bill preempting state rules on meal and rest time for truckers.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., authored an amendment to a big transportation bill preempting state rules on meal and rest time for truckers.

A California trucking dispute that pits Central Valley residents against one another has ensnared congressional negotiators trying to finish a big transportation bill.

This week could be crucial, for both the California trucking issue and the overall transportation package, whose House version sprawls over more than 1,000 pages. The current transportation bill extension expires Friday.

Other states, too, have a stake in how lawmakers resolve their differences over an amendment by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif. The measure effectively would reject an appellate court ruling and pre-empt certain state laws governing truckers’ meals and rest breaks.

Put another way, Denham says, his amendment, adopted by the House of Representatives earlier this month 248-180, would ensure uniform rules apply nationwide, despite a July 2014 ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to the contrary.

“Since 1994, motor carriers have been operating under the federal meal and rest break standards until (the court ruling),” Denham said during House debate. “This amendment would remedy that issue.”

But Butch Wagner, a Fresno-based attorney who has represented truckers, sees Denham’s amendment as a problem.

“It affects states’ rights,” Wagner said Monday. “It affects California’s right to decide, for safety purposes, when drivers take rest breaks and meal breaks.”

California law generally requires a 30-minute paid meal break for every five hours worked and a paid 10-minute break every four hours. Truck drivers working for Penske Logistics and Penske Truck Leasing sued over alleged violations.

Penske argued the state requirements were pre-empted by a federal law that prohibits state regulations “related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier,” but a three-judge appellate panel disagreed.

“California’s meal and rest break laws plainly are not the sorts of laws ‘related to’ prices, routes, or services that Congress intended to pre-empt,” wrote Judge Susan Graber, a Clinton administration appointee.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court declined to hear Penske’s appeal of the 9th Circuit’s ruling, which applies to nine Western states.

All told, 21 other states, including Kentucky and Washington, have joined California in enacting some version of a meal break and eight other states have some version of a rest break.

Public and private maneuvering over Denham’s amendment effectively overturning the court’s ruling has included behind-the-scenes lobbying by Teamsters representatives and trial lawyers.

Denham, though, also has some advantages of his own. He is one of 28 House members participating in the conference committee that will write a final bill with the Senate. The other California House negotiator, Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., joined most Democrats in voting against Denham’s amendment on Nov. 4.

“This (California) meal and rest break standard is very reasonable when you consider the truck drivers can be subject to 14 hours of on-duty time,” Napolitano said during debate.

California’s Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, her party’s senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, will also be a negotiator in the conference committee talks that aim to finish by early December. Another short-term extension would be needed to bridge the gap between Friday and then.

The House bill authorizes more than $300 billion for highway and transit projects over six years, but Congress still must come up with a source of funding for the final three years. The $350 billion Senate version passed last July also only specifies funding for the first three years.

“Everyone knows we need a long-term, bipartisan, robust transportation bill, and nobody wants our bridges falling down,” Boxer said last month.

Unlike past transportation bills that lawmakers stuffed with hometown projects, this year’s omits explicit earmarks. In the 1,032 pages of the House version, the word “California” occurs only four times, with one of the references dealing with transportation planning in the Lake Tahoe region.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10