Friday, September 18, 2015

Democratic senator introduces legislation for postal reform that would benefit rural areas

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), one of the leading champions for rural mail service, on Thursday introduced a bill titled the Improving Postal Operations, Service and Transparency Act of 2015 (iPOST), which he said “includes a comprehensive package of reforms that would place the Postal Service on firm financial footing, stabilize and improve service performance, allow for the development of new products and services and enhance transparency," reports Post & Parcel.

The U.S. Postal Service, which owes $15 billion and ended fiscal year 2014 with a net loss of $5.5 billion, has suggested ending Saturday mail delivery as one way to improve its finances. That move has not gone over well in rural areas, where many people rely on Saturday mail for deliveries of items such as prescriptions and newspapers. The service and Carper seem to have put a lower priority on the idea.

iPost "takes a hands-off approach" when it comes to "whether to allow the agency to scrap Saturday letter delivery," Bernie Becker reports for The Hill. "But postal unions and rural lawmakers have balked at the idea of getting rid of any parts of Saturday delivery, and Carper backed away from previous plans that would have given USPS more latitude to alter its delivery schedule."

The measure, which got cautious approval from the National Association of Letter Carriers and fellow lawmakers, also would allow the Postal Service to remove a requirement that it "prefund retiree healthcare benefits—a mandate that has been the major driver of the agency’s losses in recent years, including a record $15.9 billion loss in 2012," Becker writes. "The agency has defaulted on the payment for several years now. On top of that, it would increase the number of eligible postal employees using Medicare, lock in an emergency increase in stamp prices loathed by the business community and give the USPS greater access to overpayments into pension funds."

The measure also "encourages the Postal Service to move away from door-to-door to more centralized delivery wherever possible, something estimates say can be a big saver for the agency," Becker writes. "But it would also bar USPS from closing processing centers or local post offices, another area where the agency has sought to find savings." (Read more)

The National Newspaper Association, which was involved in drafting the bill, said it "would set a positive tone in the 114th Congress to provide the U.S. Postal Service with cash flow flexibility while focusing much needed attention on rural mail service." NNA President John Edgecombe, Jr., publisher of The Nebraska Signal in Geneva, welcomed Carper’s requirement for USPS to work with the Postal Regulatory Commission to measure on-time rural mail service.

“Service to small towns has demonstrably declined since USPS slowed the mail down by lowering service standards and cutting about half of its mail processing plants out of its network. My concern about this problem has occupied a good portion of my year as NNA president, as I have urged our members to keep pushing for change,” Edgecombe said. “We hear complaints from our members about newspaper delivery that have been long-standing and are now intensified. Even more alarming, we get reports about problems with First Class and Priority Mail. When the mail doesn’t work, small towns are isolated and handicapped in their economic development.”

Carper's bill would require USPS to attach a geographic tag to each ZIP code, identifying it as rural, urban or suburban, and work with the PRC on regular service reports for on-time delivery. It also would put a five-year moratorium on processing-plant closings while the commission examines whether cuts reduced service more than necessary. The bill also would freeze postal rates through 2017, during a study by the commission.

NNA Postal Committee Chair Max Heath said his panel also welcomed the Carper bill. “All of us who work closely with USPS appreciate the efforts of Postmaster General Megan Brennan to address NNA’s concerns. I have no doubt that this Postmaster General understands that service cuts have harmed the postal franchise severely and we have appreciated her open door. We are eager for Congress to get moving with a reform bill that gives USPS some financial wiggle room,” Heath said. (Read more)

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