As we near the end of 2021, it is an appropriate time to take stock of the legislative efforts on your behalf, unfinished business, and what may lie immediately ahead.
Fortunately, 2021 began with optimism. On Dec. 27, 2020, President Donald Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which contained the Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services (CERTS) Act. This bill was the culmination of nine months of advocacy by the UMA advocacy team and unprecedented grass-roots lobbying by individual UMA Members.
Congress directed the Department of Treasury to implement the program and distribute the $2 billion it authorized. UMA worked with Treasury from January through October to help the department understand the motorcoach industry and develop a fair formula. By October, Treasury sent the final payments to recipients.
Huge benefit to Members
Over 1,400 motorcoach, school bus, passenger vessel and pilotage companies representing all 50 states received grants – of which 93% of which are small businesses and more than 33% are minority-owned businesses. Direct federal grants to private sector industries impacted by the pandemic without requiring any repayment is a huge win by any measure.
The “CERTS coalition” – UMA, ABA, National School Transportation Association, and the Passenger Vessel Association – went to work immediately after passage to fill companies’ shortfalls. Treasury determined the overall revenue losses represented in grant applications was $8.4 billion. Additionally, the requirement to report CERTS funds as income and possibly incur income tax liability evolved as a concern that we are working to address.
Also this fall, 93 Members of the House of Representatives and 41 U.S. Senators signed letters to leadership requesting that CERTS grants be made tax exempt similar to treatment Congress provided for other COVID-19 relief programs. Again, the staunch support of UMA grass roots efforts helped to obtain this high level of bipartisan support.
Currently, legislation is poised to be introduced that would refill CERTS funding and make new and previously distributed grants tax exempt. What is unknown is when that legislation will be introduced. Congress is currently preoccupied with raising the debt ceiling and President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” legislation that seems stalled in the U.S. Senate. Congress has also punted appropriations for fiscal year 2022 appropriations to Feb. 18. As we draw closer to the Christmas holidays, it increasingly appears it may be early 2022 before Congress addresses CERTS issues.
Dangerous legislation averted
In any other year, the big news would have been the enormous victory achieved through passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which included a five-year surface transportation reauthorization. The original bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives contained language advocated by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., that would have significantly liberalized the Charter Service Rule – the only regulation that protects the private charter industry from unfair competition from tax-subsidized public transit agencies. If the House version had been enacted into law, the results would have devastated the private charter bus industry – much worse than the effects of pandemic.
Fortunately for the industry, the U.S. Senate ignored the House bill and passed a bipartisan bill, eventually signed by President Biden, that did not contain the offensive language liberalizing the Charter Service Rule. On behalf of all UMA Members, many thanks to those who wrote Congress and participated in calls. You made the difference.
Along with excluding the House language liberalizing the Charter Service Rule, the infrastructure bill will long be noted for provisions it did NOT contain, particularly issues important to UMA Members such as: NO mandated increase for passenger carrier insurance liability limits; NO CDL mandate for 9-15 passenger vehicles; NO mandatory state inspection program supplanting the current law for companies to perform their own annual inspections. NO obstructive sleep apnea mandate; NO directives regarding the Comprehensive Safety Analysis; NO directives on Safety Fitness Determination; NO new hours-of-service mandates. By any measure, the infrastructure bill represents another advocacy success for the industry by the mandates it avoids and by keeping out a severe weakening of the Charter Service Rule.
The bill does require tolling authorities to be subject to the federal mandate that over-the-road buses be treated the same as public transit and that they report any favorable terms they extend to public transit agencies. An apprentice driver program for 18-21 year olds, long sought by the trucking industry, will soon emerge. While passenger carriers are exempt, the new pool of youthful drivers may eventually benefit the bus and motorcoach industry as these drivers age and gain experience. The legislation also authorizes states to “immobilize” commercial motor vehicles for the most egregious violators.
Though CERTS funding arrived this summer instead of spring, most UMA Members have said the funds were appreciated and important to operators in their efforts to survive the most challenging time in the industry’s history.
If we have learned anything in the pandemic, it is how effective UMA and its Members can be in telling its story and influencing Members of Congress to act on its behalf. No doubt we have work to do in 2022, but 2021 was a legislative year worth celebrating.
Ken Presley is Vice President of Legislative, Regulatory, and Industry Affairs and Chief Operating Officer of the United Motorcoach Association.