Small businesses will play a big role in 2016 politics.
With nearly half of U.S. private sector workers employed by a small business, courting the small business vote stands to be a high priority for the Presidential candidates as well as Members of Congress.
President Obama, meanwhile, is expected to aggressively pursue his own priorities as the clock on his time in office winds down. Chief among them are labor reforms and environmental initiatives that will directly affect NATSO members.
NATSO anticipates monitoring and advocating on more than a dozen public policy topics in 2016. Here’s a glimpse of some of the biggest issues facing NATSO members and what truckstop and travel plaza owners should prepare for as the 2016 Presidential race continues to heat up.
Rest Area Commercialization
The five-year, $305 billion highway bill signed into law Dec. 4 by President Obama contained several provisions that stand to affect the right-of-way on federal aid highways. Although the changes are not dramatic, because they could potentially affect the current ban on rest area commercialization, NATSO will play an active role in how they are implemented.
Section 1413 of the new law directs the Department of Transportation (DOT) to identify and establish fueling corridors to support alternative-fueling stations, including electric, hydrogen, propane and natural gas fueling infrastructure at strategic locations along major national highways. DOT is further charged with identifying the near- and long-term need for, and locations of, electric vehicle, natural gas, and propane refueling infrastructure for both passenger and commercial vehicles.
A second provision, Section 1424, authorizes the Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration to establish pilot programs in up to five states to “utilize innovative approaches to maintain the right-of-way of Federal-aid highways.”
NATSO by and large supports efforts to expand the use of alternative fuels for transportation, and believes its members' locations could play a vital role in establishing alternative fuel corridors. However, NATSO strongly opposes the installation of alternative-fueling stations at rest areas and thinks states should work with existing exit-based businesses to install them at private businesses. Furthermore, NATSO believes that state governments should not provide transportation fuel paid for with tax dollars.
Offering electric charging services or natural gas at rest areas would allow the state to enter into direct competition with the private businesses already operating near the interstate exit interchanges to meet the fueling needs of the motoring public. In addition, state governments would preempt consumer demand for new technology and emerging fuels, effectively destroying the incentive for private sector investment.
NATSO will continue to play an active role with the Administration as these provisions in the highway bill are implemented.
Tolling Existing Interstates
NATSO and the members of the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates (ATFI) successfully beat back attempts by tolling advocates to expand the federal tolling pilot program in the FAST Act.
Tolling existing interstates remains prohibited under federal law except for three interstate facilities under the federal pilot program called the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program (ISRRPP). Currently Virginia, Missouri, and North Carolina hold these “slots.”
Although the FAST Act did not expand the number of tolling slots under the ISRRPP, it imposed a use it or lose it rule on state tolling pilot projects that will open the door to additional tolling applications. States now have a three-year deadline to obtain tolling approval under the pilot program, with the possibility of a one-year extension, after which time the slot could be transferred to another state.
NATSO thinks that tolls are an inefficient, counter-productive means of raising revenue for the nation’s highways that jeopardize the safety of the traveling public and will continue to oppose all efforts to toll existing interstates under the pilot program.
Reform of the Renewable Fuel Standard
With President Obama seeking to cement his legacy on climate change, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) will be a hot topic on Capitol Hill this year with lots of talk about whether to repeal or reform the program.
NATSO has been actively involved in RFS issues. Not only do the annual “renewable volume obligations” (RVOs) that EPA establishes have significant affects on supply, but as policymakers consider more substantive changes to the program, fuel retailers and blenders could face burdensome new requirements.
EPA has finalized RVOs for 2014-2016, and biomass-based diesel RVOs for 2017. While the RVOs are higher than those that were initially proposed, EPA used its waiver authority to reduce the RVOs below the statutory levels set by Congress to a number that it believed the market could potentially consume.
NATSO has expressed support to EPA for the agency’s exercise of its statutory waiver authority to avoid the blend wall and tie renewable volume obligations to market realities. NATSO further urged EPA to remain cognizant of the policy and economic factors that influence the biodiesel market, particularly those that could reduce consumer demand for the product. There is a delicate relationship between biodiesel demand and diesel fuel prices, NATSO said. Increasing biodiesel mandates under the RFS can enable fuel retailers to sell the product to consumers at lower prices, thereby increasing consumer demand for biodiesel. However, if renewable volume obligations are set too high, it could lead to increased prices for diesel fuel, NATSO said, which would be counter-productive. EPA accepted virtually all of NATSO’s suggestions.
The final RVOs will likely be subject to litigation from both the refining community as well as the corn ethanol community. The refining community is also expected to begin a legislative push for Congress to reconsider and/or repeal the RFS. NATSO does not expect these reform efforts to be successful.
Tax reform will be a prominent topic in Congress in 2016, but as in prior years the discussion could amount to little more than political posturing. The issue is very important for truckstop and travel plaza operators, who take advantage of a number of provisions in the tax code designed to help them grow their business. Some of these provisions are “permanent,” whereas others are temporary and must be extended by Congress in order to remain in effect.
NATSO has urged key lawmakers to incorporate a solution into a tax reform package that keeps the Highway Trust Fund solvent and provides adequate funding for the nation’s roads and bridges. It has also successfully advocated for extending the biodiesel tax credit through 2016 and keeping the credit at the blender level (rather than converting it to a producer credit).
As President Obama’s second term winds down, the administration is aggressively pursuing a number of labor initiatives designed to regulate how employers manage their employees. Particularly important for truckstops and travel plazas are the expansion of overtime eligibility and redefining joint employer status under the National Labor Relations Act.
The Department of Labor last year proposed a new rule that would raise the current overtime salary threshold to $50,400 a year up from the current threshold of $23,660.
The proposal would have a significant effect on truckstops and travel operators by greatly expanding the number of employees entitled to overtime pay for time worked in excess of 40 hours per week.
The proposed change, which does not require Congressional approval, is coming under fire from business groups and Republicans who argue it threatens jobs and will force employers to cut hours for salaried employees. In its comments to the Department of Labor on this topic, NATSO urged the agency to tie any increase in the salary threshold to regional cost-of-living differences throughout the country. NATSO further urged the agency to refrain from making any changes to the “duties test” that governs whether employees earning more than the salary threshold are entitled to overtime. The current duties test, NATSO argued, accommodates the fact that many upper level managerial and executive personnel at truckstops and travel plazas occasionally perform ministerial duties (such as stocking shelves or operating a cash register).
A National Labor Relations Board decision in 2015 redefined and expanded "joint employer” liability. This case, along with a number of similar steps taken by other executive agencies, makes it easier for two or more companies to be declared joint employers. Broadening this standard exposes companies to more legal liability for how their subcontractors, staffing agencies and franchisees treat their employees. They also make businesses more susceptible to workforce unionization by imposing new collective bargaining obligations and allowing unions the ability to strike or picket a large corporate entity rather than the individual location where there is a dispute.
The Coalition to Save Local Businesses (CSLB), of which NATSO is a member, continues to advocate for the previous joint employer standard and will ask Members of Congress to support legislation that would codify the decades-long and widely-accepted definition of what constitutes a joint employer.
The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) menu-labeling rule – requiring chain restaurants and convenience stores to post calories for prepared food items that are sold in the establishment – is scheduled to take effect on Dec. 1, 2016. NATSO plays a leading role in a coalition comprised of convenience stores, supermarkets, and pizza restaurants that is advocating legislation that would (a) delay the effective date for at least two years, (b) make compliance – especially on the convenience store / travel store side – significantly easier, and (c) limit enforcement officials’ discretion to punish store-level employees for violations, and require such enforcement efforts to be directed at corporate level officials. The House is expected to consider this legislation in the early part of 2016, with the Senate to follow suit later in the year.
Additionally, the Department of Agriculture is expected to propose new rules that any establishment that redeems Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (formerly known as “food stamps”) will have to follow. Specifically, the proposal will likely require food retailers to offer for sale a greater number and greater variety of “healthy” food items in the four staple food categories (meat, poultry or fish; bread or cereals; fruits and vegetables; and dairy products). Travel plazas play an integral role in the SNAP program, particularly in rural communities where economically challenged Americans have few places to shop for food. NATSO will play an active role with the Department of Agriculture to ensure that any new requirements allow the travel plaza industry to continue participating in SNAP.
Subscribe to Updates
NATSO provides a breadth of information created to strengthen travel plazas’ ability to meet the needs of the travelling public in an age of disruption. This includes knowledge filled blog posts, articles and publications. If you would like to receive a digest of blog post and articles directly in your inbox, please provide your name, email and the frequency of the updates you want to receive the email digest.