Port Authority reform — or political football?

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Democrats say they’re committed to preventing legislation to reform an embattled Port Authority from becoming a political football — that is, if it hasn’t become one already.

On Monday, lawmakers in Trenton clashed publicly over the legislature’s latest push to set down some guidelines for reigning in the bi-state agency, failing once again to override a veto by Gov. Chris Christie of legislation that Democrats argue would do just that. It was not the first time the body failed to buck the front office’s decree, but it was a bitter loss for those seeking swift action against the agency, especially because of just how close the vote was: Democrats, who had spent the last several weeks going behind closed doors with potential Republican sympathizers to secure the support need for a successful override, found themselves just two votes short of the two-thirds majority needed oppose Christie.

While a few Republicans rose to applaud their colleagues across the aisle on the floor, they ultimately turned their support to a bill sponsored by one of their own. All Republicans except for one — state Senator Mike Doherty (D-23), who said he voted for the Democrats’ bill mainly because a Republican version wasn’t up for consideration — lined up behind Senate Majority Leader Tom Kean (R-21), who the week before introduced his own version of the reform legislation (S-2794) in hopes of making it more palatable to both parties.

“We all share a degree of concern. And the majority, I would have hoped, and I pray [Senator Bob Gordon] — and I mean it — that we can get together before this next effort on this initiative rather than push this override vote through, which we know is not going to succeed,” said state Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-13)

The failed vote highlighted just how far the legislature, at least on this side of the Hudson, has departed from the bi-partisanship that defined early efforts at overhauling the agency. Republicans and Democrats were once largely in agreement on the direction the agency needed to head, as well what kind of measures would get it there, just a few months ago, when both New Jersey’s and New York’s legislatures unanimously passed through all houses a bill (S-2181) sponsored by state Senator Bob Gordon (D-38). Now, however, both parties seem to have dug their heels in on opposing sides of the issue, determine not to let the other steal credit for bringing in line an agency that for years has operated decidedly out of line.

Republicans say their version of the legislation is preferable, as it combines ideas from both the Democrats’ bill with a list recommendations put forward late last year by a panel convened by the governors of New York and New Jersey to find ways to fix the agency. It therefore has a better chance of passing both executives’ desk, they argue, which is what the Democrats’ bill was unable to do this year.

But Democrats aren’t budging. Recent remarks show a party, which spearheaded Port Authority reform efforts last year, unwilling to share the spotlight with Republicans who’ve since stonewalled their efforts. And though Democrats have vowed to work with them on the issue, it’s unclear to what extent they’ll actually do so, as they’ve largely rejected Kean’s bill as a “watered-down” version of their own.

State Senator Bob Gordon (D-38) said following Monday’s vote that he and other members of the Democratic leadership will return to square one with the legislation, using a version of the bill pending in the Assembly, sponsored by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainiari Huttle (D-38), to lay the foundation for a new, hopefully more successful, iteration of it.

If the issue hasn’t become a political football than it’s at least created something of an impasse in the legislature on this side of the Hudson, as lawmakers on the New York side — who will also need to pass the legislation for the reforms to take effect — await their lead. Still, Democrats here maintain that Port Authority reform will not become the highly-politicized issue that all indications point to it becoming.

“This is not going to be political football,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-38). “Senator Gordon and I are determined to get through a Port Authority Reform bill that hopefully will be done in conjunction with our New York partners, and even maybe be signed by two governors. That’s what we’re going to be working toward.”

Weinberg would not say whether she feels the legislation is being co-opted by Republicans — though she wouldn’t be without grounds if she did. Anther example of the growing tension between the parties over Port Authority reformation took place Wednesday, at a press conference in Newark, where Senate Democrats called on the Port Authority to sell all of its non-transportation-related real estate to free up money for other infrastructure projects. The was quickly met with a statement from the Republican side, who said they were “encouraged” by the consensus the two parties had met on the agency’s “core mission.”

It was Kean who authored the statement, remarking about how he thinks it’s “encouraging” that Democrats are now “echoing a key component of my comprehensive, common-ground reform legislation — a provision prohibiting the Port Authority from spending public dollars on anything but a core mission of quality mass transportation.”

The praise was clearly tongue-in-cheek, and meant to show Republicans were ahead of the game on the issue: this was his Port Authority legislation. Democrats are simply tagging along on it.

“Senator Kean’s bill did talk about sale of property, and our bill made sure that whenever there is a sale of property that it’s done according to bidding laws, according to transparency, and accountability,” Weinberg said. “We knew we hadn’t addressed structure, and we thought that should be done in a separate bill, if they want to combine it into one bill that’s OK.”

In his statement, Kean argued that his “common-ground bill” includes “overdue transparency reforms”, while the Democrats’ “failed” bill included “onerous property provisions, which would have made it virtually impossible for the Port Authority to sell billions of dollars of non-transportation-related real estate.”

Weinberg held her ground.

“So we’re going to come up using the Gordon/Weinberg bill as the basis, we will incorporate whatever we think we might have left out. But we’re going to get it done as it needs to get done,” she said.

Port Authority reform — or political football?