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January 30, 2012 6:00 AM, EST

Regulations Rile Heavy-Duty Manufacturers

ATA’s Graves Tells Group Transportation Bill is Unlikely

By Jonathan S. Reiskin, Associate News Editor

This story appears in the Jan. 30 print edition of Transport Topics.

LAS VEGAS — Manufacturers of truck components and parts meeting here bristled at the Obama administration’s regulatory policies, calling them onerous and difficult to comply with, while the president of American Trucking Associations said his industry probably will not get what it craves most this year, a new, comprehensive federal transportation plan.

Key issues for the manufacturers include labor regulations, reporting on imports of minerals and uncertainty on taxes. As for the multiyear highway plan, ATA’s Bill Graves said the usefulness of continued extensions of the plan that expired in 2009 is breaking down because the balance between funding and spending is crumbling.

Graves said the old formulas are out of balance now, and money in the highway trust fund is being spent faster than it is coming into the fund through taxes.

“It’s getting lower now as Congress has accelerated spending. At some point — I’m not sure when — but someone will have to take a haircut,” he said. “Congress overcommitted.”

“Last year, we saw the beginning of legislation by regulation, and this has continued. We have to stop the madness,” said Jack Shaffer, chairman of the Heavy-Duty Manufacturers Association and CEO of Bergstrom Inc., a maker of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems for trucks.

“I’m begging you to get involved,” said Shaffer, imploring his members to go to Washington and lobby members of Congress.

“The administration will try to address its policy goals furiously before the election through the regulatory environment,” said Ann Wilson, lobbyist for the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, of which HDMA is a part.

After President Obama filled three vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board earlier in January through the recess ap-pointment process, the NLRB is now fully staffed with five members. Wilson said she thinks the board will enact rules to speed up elections on union representation.

“This will be a back-door route to card check,” she said, referring to labor legislation that failed earlier during the Obama administration.

She also warned about a Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring publicly traded companies to report on their use of minerals originating in regions of Africa torn by civil war.

“There is paperwork to file on gold and tungsten, among other metals. It’s very hard to say with certainty that you don’t have any of this. It’s a mammoth undertaking,” Wilson said.

On tax issues, she urged the elimination of the federal excise tax on heavy-duty truck sales and said the money should be made up through a higher diesel tax. She also would like to see the tax credit for research and development made permanent and incentives to accelerate the purchase of advanced safety and pollution-control technologies on trucks.

Wilson agreed with Graves on the importance of passing a new surface transportation funding plan, but she was more optimistic than he was about its passage, saying it could get done during a lame-duck session of Congress in November and December.

Graves has argued consistently that passage of such a plan is of the highest importance for trucking, but he said here he sees the three key actors advocating completely different proposals.

He said the president and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have supported a new law in general, “but they have not backed it up with specifics and money.”

The House of Representatives will unveil a five-year plan soon  and could pass it in February. Graves said he likes that long-term approach.

Funding for that plan, though, would come from new energy initiatives, some of them controversial, including drilling for oil in an Alaskan wildlife reserve.

However, Graves said that the Senate has an especially cumbersome process involving four committees, and so far, the most popular plan would expire after only two years — too short for important planning by states, said Graves, a former two-term governor of Kansas.

“Will we be able to find common ground in all of this? It’s not likely,” he said.

Graves said trucking companies do not like paying more for diesel, but a new roads plan is so important that ATA supports raising diesel fuel taxes to pay for the work, he said.

“ATA wants to raise the fuel tax, but this doesn’t go over well when I visit the Hill,” Graves said.

Handicapping the fall elections, Graves and Wilson agreed separately that the Republicans have an excellent chance of seizing control of the Senate because more Democratic seats are on the ballot, compared with Republican seats.

Wilson said she thinks the Republicans will hold the House, but Graves said that anger against incumbents, in general, is so profound that the Democrats might be able to take the House.

On the presidential level, Graves said continuing high unemployment makes re-election difficult for Obama, but the ATA president offered no prediction as to who would win the White House.