Fargo state Senator Tyler Axness is running for the Public Service Commission, but he’s prone to making comments about the office he’s running for which sort of suggest that he really doesn’t know what the office does.
Axness really, really wants the Casselton train derailment to be an issue in the PSC race, and to that end he’s attacking the current members of the Commission for being lax on railroad regulation. Including in a recent fundraising email to supporters in which he cites state law claiming that the PSC really does have “direct oversight over all railroads in our state.”
Here’s Chapter 49-10.1 of the North Dakota Century Code, which Axness claims gives the PSC “direct oversight over all railroads” in North Dakota. But that’s not really the case.
For instance, section 49-10.1-01 under that chapter states that the PSC “may regulate railroads” to “the extent not inconsistent with federal law.”
Most of the PSC’s regulatory authority is related to shipping rates and other non-safety issues. And while state law does give the PSC some power over rail safety, it’s again limited to what the federal government allows. Section 49-10.1-14 states, “The commission, for the protection of persons and property, may adopt and enforce railroad safety rules not inconsistent with any federal agency having jurisdiction over railroads. The commission may adopt rules more stringent than federal rules when necessary to eliminate an essentially state or local safety hazard if the rules are not incompatible with any federal law or rule and do not create an undue burden on interstate commerce.”
All emphasis mine.
In other words, any regulations related to railroads the Public Service Commission hopes to establish in North Dakota must be approved by the federal government. There is nothing the State of North Dakota can do with regard to rail safety without first getting approval from the federal government.
Which isn’t exactly a big secret. Per the PSC’s website, “The Commission’s regulatory authority over railroads diminished as a result of the enactment of the federal Staggers Rail Act in 1980 and the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) Termination Act in 1995. The 1995 enactment eliminated many ICC functions and transferred all remaining duties to the Surface Transportation Board (STB) within the Department of Transportation.”
The PSC is now little more than a representative of North Dakota’s rail interests to the federal government. Certainly, the PSC isn’t doing the sort of track and rail car inspections that would be relevant to the Casselton derailment.
Which isn’t to say the PSC couldn’t. Other states have federally-approved track inspection programs, but the key term there is “federally approved.”
To the extent that perhaps North Dakota should have more of a say in rail safety, it’s worth noting that liberals like Axness generally oppose that sort of states-first approach to policy. In fact, I think most of us are familiar with the way the left talks about states rights as though the idea were some sort of ne0-secessionist movement.
Democrats generally favor federal regulation over state regulation. Except when it comes to convenient campaign talking points.
Here’s the fundraising email from Axness: