Degnan’s aggressiveness surprised Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), who said he had served “on this committee for a decade and I have not seen that combative nature in this committee I think ever.”
When Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) pressed Degnan on whether Christie was correct in his 2010 decision to, which was to be funded partly with $3 billion from the Port Authority, Degnan said he was “not prepared to make that judgment” on a four-year-old decision without a thorough review.
He said he believed the Port Authority should play a role in the construction of a future passenger rail tunnel, but refused to second-guess Christie’s decision. “If you can’t accept that, vote against me, Senator,” Degnan snapped.
Gill did just that, saying that Degnan’s son Philip’s role as executive director of the State Commission on Investigation would have a chilling effect on any future role the SCI might play in investigating the Port Authority. Degnan dismissed that premise, noting that his son would recuse himself from any SCI investigation, and furthermore, that the SCI had never been called upon to investigate the Port Authority in its 45-year history.
Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) voted against Degnan too, citing a variety of issues. He asserted that Degnan’s decision to serve on the judicial review advisory board after Christie’s refusal to reappoint Wallace undermined judicial independence. He told Degnan that he “did a gross disservice to the people of the state of New Jersey on the gun-control commission by not recommending one gun-control measure” in the wake of the Sandy Hill School shootings. “All of the recommendations were consistent with what Gov. Christie wanted,” Lesniak said, referring to Christie’s reluctance to support any gun-control measures at a time when he was in the running for the GOP vice-presidential nomination.
“What this authority needs is not just someone who will be responsible to Gov. Christie, but someone who will be independent,” Lesniak said.
“I don’t believe this nominee will do that,” he concluded. “I hope I’m wrong. I vote no.”
Degnan, however, won the support of the five Republicans and the other six Democrats on the commission, including both Scutari and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the cochair of the legislative committee investigating Bridgegate. Weinberg noted that she met privately with both Degnan and Laufenberg and brought along Assemblywoman Amy Handlin (R-Monmouth), the Republican committee member who has been most vocal in calling for Port Authority reform legislation, as a demonstration of her commitment to bipartisan reform. ”I believe you and I trust you and I will be at Port Authority meetings to watch you,” Weinberg warned.
Port Authority commissioners also will attend future hearings on toll hikes and other critical issues, Degnan promised.
“For the Port Authority not to have a commissioner or two at every hearing is an insult to the public,” Degnan said in response to Weinberg’s complaint. “That will not happen again.”
Lesniak pressed Degnan hard to push for the abolition of the Port Authority’s Regional Economic Development Bank. The fund, which had been used previously by other governors as a “political Christmas tree,” was suspended in 2008, and “then Gov. Cuomo and Gov. Christie put it on steroids” by allocating $900 million for it. However, Sens. Joseph M. Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) and Brian Stack (D-Hudson) reminded Degnan and the audience that one man’s Christmas tree is another man’s priority. Stack pushed Degnan to continue the special aid provided to Union City, where he is mayor, to make up for traffic congestion and other costs.
And Kyrillos pressed both Degnan and Lautenberg to make sure that the Port Authority honored its commitment to provide $5 million to Aberdeen for a 260-acre regional park in his district as a match for $5.5 million already raised by the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders, the Monmouth Conservancy, and the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper.
The money was to come from New Jersey’s share of $30 million set aside for each state for estuary projects as part of the Regional Economic Development Bank, but it has been held up for six months in the wake of the Bridgegate controversy “because the Port Authority is too paralyzed to take any action,” Kyrillos complained.
“It’s certainly reasonable to consider whether these kinds of projects are part of the Port Authority’s core mission of transportation and infrastructure going forward, but I do feel strongly about past commitments being fulfilled,” he said. “This is an important project in the Port region in Monmouth County that was all but approved except for a vote that is just a formality by the Port Authority commissioners.
“The site in Aberdeen was on the priority list of estuary projects for 14 years,” he said, noting that the site is approved for the construction of about 220 houses if the Port Authority funding falls through. “The commissioners there now are not fulfilling their obligations,” Kyrillos complained to Degnan.
Lesniak said, however, that it was time to end the parceling out of Port Authority toll money to non-core projects that bleed money away from critical capital priorities like the Port Authority Bus Terminal, whose 16 roof leaks were ignored until Weinberg and other legislators complained, and the Port Authority suddenly managed to divert $90 million from other projects as a down payment on the needed $900 million refurbishment.