TRENTON – The Assembly passed a Port Authority investigations measure after some partisan exchanges about the motivations behind the move. The measure was approved 44-30-2.
AR61, sponsored by John Wisniewski, (D-19), Sayreville; Valerie Vainieri Huttle, (D-37), Englewood, would have the Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee – which Wisniewski chairs – as a special committee of the General Assembly to investigate all aspects of the finances of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, including, but not limited to, the recently proposed 10-year capital plan, the allocation of the revenue generated from the recently imposed toll increase plan, and the salary, overtime, and other compensation paid to officers and employees of the authority.
The measure does not require Senate approval.
Minority Leader Jon Bramnick said that not since 1993 has the Assembly actually seen a subpoena issued. “It seems to me that this must be closely scrutinized,’’ he said, to determine whether all other opportunities have been exhausted before issuing subpoenas, which open up a host of unintended consequences and legal issues.
He said that the governors of the two states have authorized an ongoing audit, but this would authorize a committee chaired by the state Democratic Party to investigate the Port Authority.
He said an objective look is needed at the Port Authority but the history here is cloudy.
He said that without a real attempt at cooperation it is a dangerous precedent to be set by the Assembly. He urged the audit to be allowed to continue.
“We’re opening up confrontation, not examination,’’ he said.
In response, Wisniewski said one hearing was held in this legislative session and one last session into the authority. He also said there have been four freedom of information act requests to the authority since 2010 that have gone without a response.
Wisniewski said the problem is that the Port Authority believes it is above responding to such requests. Authority officials did not attend a recent Transportation committee hearing at the Assembly but Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni did attend a similar Senate committee hearing.
Bramnick said some of those freedom of information requests have come from the Democratic State Committee, not the Transportation Committee. He again urged waiting for the audit process to run its course.
Republican Assemblyman David Rible said that the authority needs reform but pointed out that there were no subpoenas or committees when questionable issues occurred under Democratic regimes. He said the only purpose of this bill is to try and embarrass Gov. Chris Christie.
Republican Assemblyman John Amodeo said that indeed, tolls are too high and reform is needed but another costly and duplicative probe won’t fix the agency.
“It’s a blank check for connected lawyers,’’ he said.
Majority leader Lou Greenwald defended the resolution.
“We must respond to the people, and this house is the people’s house,” he said. It’s fine the governors have launched an audit, he said, but he said the Assembly is an equal branch and the authority can’t be allowed to thumb its nose at the Legislature.
“We have a right to this information,’’ he said and the authority continually has denied it.
Wisniewski said that he has heard a lot of concerns raised about a very simple act, a request for information.
This is not a witch hunt, he said, it’s about “our role as legislators. We are an equal branch of government.”
“In order to legislate we need to ask questions.’’
For 18 months those questions have gone unanswered, he said.
“They say that sunlight is the best disinfectant.’’