As the barrage of press releases from labor unions and others supporting the Port Authority’s proposed toll hike make their way into the public domain, one voice – or rather a host of voices – is missing from the chorus.
Since the proposed toll and fare hike was announced Friday, Democratic state lawmakers have been almost universally absent from the criticism of the plan, which would raise the cost to cross the Hudson by 50 percent for some motorists.
Sources tell PolitickerNJ the reason for the silence is twofold. First, organized labor has come out overwhelmingly in favor of the plan. The revenue generated from the hike will fund some $30 billion in capital improvements over the next decade, creating much needed jobs for labor’s rank and file, who have seen their unemployment rise as high as 40 percent.
With some Democrats – including party leadership – already at odds with the AFL-CIO over the recent vote on pension and health benefits reform and mid-term elections less than three months away, few party members want to rankle labor any further.
To date, Port Authority brass have engaged in a coordinated campaign to bombard the press with supportive releases from labor unions and at least some elected officials have taken notice.
The unions also have made their stance on the hike very clear to lawmakers.
This week, sources say representatives of the Laborers International Union, which counts Port Authority board member Ray Pocino as its Vice President, have reached out to several lawmakers urging them to hold off on criticism of the increase, at least for now.
“I was asked to keep my powder dry,” said one Democratic lawmaker who received the call. “They asked me not to go after the governor on it yet, because the plan means a lot of jobs for these guys.”
Maggie Moran, who serves as Director of Business Development under Pocino, would not confirm calls to individual lawmakers but said labor in general and Pocino in particular are taking an active role in shepherding the toll hike to passage.
“Ray Pocino has spent more than 50 years advocating for infrastructure and economic development,” she said. ” Ray believes that our critical infrastructure is essential toward maintaining our regional competitiveness and to a thriving economy for New York and New Jersey. The Laborers have been active in building support for the Port Authority proposal and will continue to do so.”
Democrats also tell PolitickerNJ there is another motive at play as well. Lawmakers say keeping quiet until the toll hike is passed makes good political sense. The accepted wisdom among politicos is that the proposed hike, which has been called outrageous in some circles, will be scaled back by Gov. Chris Christie, who will then play the role of white knight, who fought the good fight for a more reasonable increase.
Democrats say if they fire their guns now, it leaves them no room to maneuver in the fall, when all 120 seats in the Legislature are in play.
“There is a school of thought that If we go at (Christie) now, and then he scales it back, it leaves us nowhere to go,” said one lawmaker. “But if we wait until after it’s passed, it’s an election issue because he is a hypocrite.”
According to another Democratic source, Senate staffers have been told not to issue releases on behalf of lawmakers critical of the plan.
Another Democratic source with knowledge of the Democrats’ plans said they are content to let U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez take point on the attack for now and save their coordinated salvo for later.
“if it passes, it’ll be a different story,” the source said.
Many Democrats are champing at the bit to take on Christie over the hikes and over the governor’s claim that he knew nothing about them until two days before they were announced. Christie has said he was not aware of the proposed hike until last Wednesday. The governor has said he is studying the plan but both Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo reportedly believe the increase is too high.
“This guy micro-manages everything that happens in his office and you want me to believe with (Deputy Executive Director Bill) Baroni and (Port Authority Board Chairman David) Samson there he didn’t know? He’s going to end up looking dumb on that one.”
The Port Authority will hold six public hearings on the plan next Tuesday at its offices in Newark, Fort Lee, Jersey City, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island.