Republicans and Democrats in NJ still divided over Port Authority reform legislation

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TRENTON — Lawmakers in New York may have settled on a new round of legislation to reform an embattled Port Authority, but in New Jersey, where the initiative first began, a gaping divide over the issue looks like it will continue to prevent the same kind of progress.

Republicans and Democrats in Trenton remained split over how to proceed on the reforms today, with the former group joining renewed efforts to pass legislation aimed at overhauling the bi-state agency in the wake of scandals like Bridgegate, and the latter group hesitating in the hope of further debate. Democrats say they want to continue to fight for key provisions left out of the bill introduced by lawmakers in Albany last week, which combines elements of earlier legislation with recommendations put forth by a bi-state panel tasked with investigating problems at the agency, while Republicans want to move forward, citing the support of both Gov. Chris Christie and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-21), making good on his promise to sponsor a consensus bill identical to New York’s, introduced his own version of that legislation today, calling it “workable” and “comprehensive.”

“This new legislation — supported by both governors, bipartisan legislative leaders in both houses of New York’s legislature and bipartisan sponsors in the New Jersey Assembly — will prevent the Port Authority from wasting, abusing and wantonly increasing the billions of dollars the public agency takes each year from hard-working commuters and taxpayers,” Kean said. “This bill ensures an accountable, transparent, efficient and transportation-oriented Port Authority that will be vital to economic growth and job creation in New Jersey.

The division again highlights 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 Port. 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, when all four houses in New Jersey and New York unanimously passed the first Democratic-backed version of a bill to reign in the agency last year. But the effort ultimately stalled, first when Christie and Cuomo vetoed the legislation back in December, and again when a later veto override by New Jersey lawmakers fell short.

Political observers credit an earlier version of Kean’s bill, which he introduced when it became apparent the Democrats’ bill did not have Christie’s support and because it did not include some recommendations by the bi-state panel, with derailing that veto override attempt. (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 Kean’s bill).

Democrats also revisited the issue today, following an Assembly Transportation hearing that saw testimony from Port Authority Chairman John Degnan. Appointed by Christie to the post in July of last year, the Democrat’s work at the agency has been well-received by both parties in the legislature, who’ve recognized certain reform measures begun under his leadership. During his own testimony Degnan noted that many of the reforms proposed by lawmakers over the past several months, such as changing the way meetings are conducted and introducing a new transparency resolution that allows more access to public records, a process long criticized as being too slow and unresponsive, have already been implemented.

But key Democratic lawmakers following the hearing argued that those reforms have yet to be codified in law, and that the only legislation proposed thus far hat would ensure that has been their own. State Senators Bob Gordon (D-38) and Loretta Weinberg (D-37), both sponsors of Democrats’ original Port Authority legislation, expressed some disappointment over New York lawmakers’ bill, which they said was crammed through over a period of three days in order to get it passed before the end of the body’s legislative session.

“We’re not looking for perfection, but we are looking for something a little better than what emerged from the backrooms of Albany last week. I would remind you that there were no hearings held on this — these were just discussion among the power brokers,” Gordon said. “We have concerns as Senator Weinberg said that if New York has the chair, and if the CEO is from New York, or someone who is not able to serve New Jersey’s interests, New York is going to run the show.”

Democrats say one of their biggest concerns is the loss of Degnan himself, whose could lose his position under a provision in the New York — and Kean’s — bill that would rearrange the agency’s current management structure, during a time when New Jersey’s interests are already poorly represented at the bi-state agency. Under a current informal power-sharing agreement, the governor of New Jersey chooses the chairman of the board and the deputy executive director, while the governor of New York selects the vice-chairman and executive director; but under the new bill, the Port’s current executive director and deputy executive director would be replace by one chief executive officer, with the chairperson and vice chairperson rotated between New York and New Jersey every two years, beginning with New York.

Aside from that, they say the bills leaves out a key reform measure included in Democrats’ original bill that would have given the legislature greater authority over the agency, currently controlled by the two governors alone.

“You know what, we had pretty nearly perfect legislation, perfected thanks to the leadership of Senator Gordon,” Weinberg said when asked about the New York bill. “It went through four houses in two states, and was vetoed. We still have not heard back from either of those governors why that Christmas week veto had to take place.”

Gordon and Weinberg — as well as Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), who successfully sponsored a bill last year to bring greater transparency to the Port — said they plan to reconsider their options over the summer, after the legislature’s budget session concludes.

“Having said that, we are very concerned that if John Degnan is not the chair person of the Port Authority, we will have lost a major voice,” she added.

Still, Kean suggested Democrats are turning the issue into a political football.

“New Jersey Senate Democrats should not keep this issue alive solely to score political points. They must join us bipartisan, bi-state supporters and seize the opportunity we have this month to enact workable, comprehensive Port Authority reform for the people we represent,” Kean said.

 

Republicans and Democrats in NJ still divided over Port Authority reform legislation